The Devil Made Me Do It

Flip Wilson
Flip Wilson

On this final day of Black History month I choose to stay true to my nature as a contrarian and not highlight a popular figure torn from the pages of black history text books. Instead, my choice is a very personal one.

As a very young boy, around age 5, my family would gather around the television to watch two shows in particular – Rowan & Martin’s “Laugh-In” and “The Flip Wilson Show” starring comedian Flip Wilson.  At 5 years of age, I obviously had no clue as to the historical significance of this funny black man, Flip Wilson, on our television screen.  All I knew then was that it was family time and Flip was gut-busting funny.  My brother Roland and I would get quite the kick out of imitating Wilson’s various characters and we couldn’t resist saying “the devil made me do it” before going to bed.

Wilson's popular character Geraldine
Wilson’s popular character Geraldine

Wilson’s hour-long variety show aired from 1970-74 and is credited with being one of the first television programs starring a black person as lead to become highly successful among a white audience.  While the “Nat King Cole Show” was the first to feature a black lead, Wilson’s show achieved the kind of success that Cole’s show could not.  Certainly not because of a talent deficiency but because advertisers were afraid to sponsor the program.  At its height, The Flip Wilson Show had around 40 million weekly viewers.  Nearly double that of Seinfeld. 

Robert Thompson, Director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture and Trustee Professor of Television Radio & Film at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University says that “Flip Wilson is one of the three most important pioneers in the integration of television during its first generation. Nat King Cole hosted his own show in the 1950s with an elegance and dignity that provided a little antidote to the likes of Amos ‘N’ Andy and Beulah, which had aired just a few years earlier; Bill Cosby starred in both a drama (I SPY) and a sitcom (The Bill Cosby Show) in the 1960s; but Flip Wilson’s show engaged a level of ratings and national popularity that topped them all.”

Wilson’s trail-blazing efforts were not without discomfort and criticism, particularly from black folk. At a time when few African Americans, if any, were seen on television, Wilson’s most popular character Geraldine caused a stir among some in the black community who accused Wilson of causing detrimental harm to the image of black masculinity. Thompson remembers, “Some people were disturbed that, of all the characters Filp Wilson portrayed on his show, “Geraldine” was far and away the most popular. Some argued that having one of the few black males on television spending a portion of each show in a dress was problematic on a number of levels.” Of Wilson’s many contributions, Thompson noted, ” He provided a showcase for black musicians that, over the run of the show, provided an important anthology of performances by Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson (in one of her last performances), Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, James Brown, and lots more.” Clearly a man devoted to providing a platform seeking wider recognition for talented black performers in need of increased exposure.

Geraldine Jones was indeed problematic for Wilson who described her as, “honest, frank, and affectionate…Geraldine is liberated, that’s where that’s at.” Wilson, a talented and serious stand-up comedian, struggled to rise above the popularity of Geraldine Jones. A struggle that I learned later after watching HBO’s documentary Mo Funny: Black Comedy in America. He vowed to friends and fellow comedians to not let Geraldine eclipse him.

I was not concerned with such issues as black masculinity as a young boy. All I knew at the time was that Flip Wilson was funny and that Geraldine was funny and they both brought me great joy. The joy of laughter. The joy of family togetherness. And an understanding, even at such a young age, that a black cat, Flip Wilson, a man who I though resembled my dad, was on the tv doing stuff that I’d seen no other black man do.  And for that I salute him.

A Different Beat

Lianne La Havas
Lianne La Havas

With my purple Beats by Dre draped over my ears, mind and body quiescent, I bid farewell to the last remaining days of Black History Month.  A silent celebration of old school R&B and funk tunes shuffling on my phone.  But I suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder and my focus is soon interrupted with thoughts of the music industry in general and the urban, R&B, Hip Hop track specifically.  I think of how hard it is for groups and individuals to break through and break out in a genre that is dominated by a popular few.

A.D.D. kicks in again and thoughts move on. I start thinking of black musicians today who choose a different trail to blaze. Who choose to dance to a different beat. And why not if the path is viable. There is a proliferation of white artist carving out successful careers in the R&B and Hip Hop fields. Robin Thicke, Maclemore & Ryan Lewis, Eminem, and Justin Timberlake are just a sample of those capitalizing on the “cool white boy” phenomenon in traditional black music genres.

If you flip the script, you’ll discover that their are a number of black artists forging successful careers in alternative genres with their extraordinary talents.  Allow me to introduce you to a few of my favorites.

Lianne La Havas set the public radio music world on fire with her debut release Is Your Love Big Enough which was awarded ITunes album of the year 2012. La Havas, born Lianne Charolette Barnes, is a folk singer, soul singer, and singer-songwriter from England.  Her music is usually filed in the “alternative” music section. Public radio gravitated to this young musician because of her mature vocals and excellent songwriting ability.  Is Your Love Big Enough was one of my favorite albums last year but don’t take my word for it. You can judge for yourself:

Another artist that’s caught my attention over the past few years is singer Santigold.


Born Santi White, Santigold is an alternative rock, singer-songwriter who hails from Philadelphia, PA. With a haunting voice at times, Santigold’s in-your-face style draws on dance hall themed grooves and discontentment. Her most recent album, Master of My Make Believe, received critical acclaim. It’s not likely that you’ve heard her on traditional commercial R&B radio stations so I offer you this sample.  Disparate Youth, with its driving beat, edgy guitar, and steady groove, is without a doubt my favorite Santigold song:

This next group is likely too “twangy” for some of you but it doesn’t mean that the Carolina Chocolate Drops aren’t one of the more celebrated bands in their field.

Carolina Chocolate Drops
Carolina Chocolate Drops

This African American string band made a huge splash on the folk music scene in 2005 and their 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig, won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album. They are usually categorized in the folk, Americanna, bluegrass, and old-time categories. Rolling Stone describes their style as “dirt-floor-dance electricity”. The latest iteration of the band includes classically trained vocalist Rhiannon Giddens, Hubby Jenkins, Malcolm Parson and Rowan Corbett. Before you pass them off as “hillbilly” music, open your mind and lend a critical ear:

What’s been true about the creative spirit of African Americans since landing on this continent remains true today and that is that it can not be contained or confined  to any one construct. When we are moved to create, regardless of the forum or media, we express ourselves in genuine and authentic ways.  And we should be the same way as consumers of art.

In Full Panic Mode at 49

Old JoeAs of this writing, I am a full 457 days away from turning 50 and, if you can’t tell by this advanced obsession, it is not sitting well with me. I never thought I would be the type to over-contemplate the aging process. After all, I consider myself a man of science. I understand aging and its role in the circle of life. But it does bring about an internal dialogue that I find particularly disturbing.

This is not a happy blog post. It is one full of angst, fear and trepidation. There is no “grab-the-bull-by-the-horns” pep talk here. Doom and gloom are the name of the game and the sky is indeed falling.

The featured photo here is from a site that allows you to age your face. I chose a 30 year aging for laughs but, instead of chuckles, I damn near cried hysterically. This is how I know that when the big 50 comes 457 days from now, my wife had better be equipped with a jumbo pack of Kleenex.

The picture disturbed me because I still remember the reckless little boy that ran the streets of Baltimore with hair that made me look like a feral child raised by wolves. I remember the high school boy overly concerned about pulling off a preppy look. And Joe “Black” the afrocentric, kente cloth wearing, Haki Madhubuti  poem spewing rebel who was going topple the “man’s” social construct.  I remember them with vivid detail. What has become of those Joes?

What does 50 have in store?  How about 82? For more laughs (or torture) I calculated my life expectancy using the Social Security on-line calculator and discovered that, as of now, I can expect to live to be 82 years old.  Not that I want to live that long.  But it is only 33 more years or 396 months of remaining battery life.  I need a plan to prepare myself for 50 457 days from now.  What am I going to do to cling to my youth?  Have I made a difference on matters of which I have some bearing? Am I prepared to survive another 20 years? What will be my quality of life? Do I spend my final years selfishly or helping others? Do I chase the kids off my lawn while wearing boxer shorts, black socks and slippers or do I let them play? Do I drive around for 30 minutes trying to find the closest parking spot that I can? I can not stop these thoughts from haunting me during the contemplative bathroom moments.

I don’t quite know what I am going to do but I do know what I am not going to do:

  1. I will not celebrate with a party. I don’t think I will be in the mood to celebrate the final third of my life with people that just want free booze and food.
  2. I will not color my hair. I can’t think of anything more desperate and artificial.
  3. I will not grow “mitties” or “moobies”. If I have to perform 200 push-ups per day to keep the chest tight, I will.
  4. I will not let my stomach eclipse the view of my shoes. I pay enough for them and needs see them.
  5. I will not accept the AARP card. I’ll hold off for as long as I can or until the deals are just too good to turn down.
  6. I will not stop having sex.  Angela Lee…you can run but you can’t hide!
  7. I will not let my nose and ear hair grow to a length that can be braided.
  8. I will NOT wear dad jeans. Under any circumstances.
  9. I will NOT listen to classical music. These old ears will continue to rock out even if the volume has to be much lower than normal.
  10. I will NOT dine before 6 PM.  That is lunch any way you slice it.

Fretting these things can’t be good though. I realize that it is quite natural to want to preserve your youth in the face of decrepitude. Perhaps my biggest fear has nothing to do with physically aging but grounded more in the fear that I will cease to be useful. Cease to be relevant. I do think about and fear all of these things during the quiet times. But then I think that the zombie apocalypse will be upon us before we know it and this worry will all be for naught. They will surely need my expertise and leadership then.

How Am I Doing?

Self assessmentSelf assessment is not new to us. We are asked to do it every year in the workplace. We turn to our bathroom scales when we want to measure weight loss goals.  Bank statements reveal how well we reach our financial goals. But what about our performance as a parent? A spouse? What performance indicators do we turn to assess effectiveness in these areas?

I read a blog recently in which the writer described her father as an “OK father.” I couldn’t help but cringe at the thought of being a mediocre father or husband. I certainly do not aim for such distinction and so I asked myself, “How Am I Doing?”  After significant contemplation (approximately 2 minutes) the answer was. “I’m doing a fantastic job”. That is generally how the self-assessment of annual performance in the workplace goes, right?  Until the boss comes in with a different perspective. The disconnect becomes apparent and we are left wondering WTF!

It is those to whom we are responsible whose perspectives matter most. After all, their perception is their reality. So to effectively measure my performance as a father and a husband, I should definitely turn turn to my customer group — the wife and kids. Gulp!


I will need some assessment tools. A set of agreed upon criteria by which to measure my effectiveness. The results should give me an idea of “strengths” and “areas for improvement”.

In his book, The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting, Laurence Steinberg, PhD provides guidelines based on some of the top social science research which neatly serves as the criteria for my performance evaluation .  I Gave the criteria to my daughters and asked them to score me on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being a “deadbeat” and 10 being worthy of “father of the year.”  Here’s how I scored:

  1. Am I a good role model?  Average score – 10
  2. Do I show enough love and affection? Average score – 9
  3. Am I involved in your life? Average score – 9.5
  4. Does my parenting keep pace with your development? Average score – 9
  5. Do I establish and set rules? Average score – 9
  6. Do I foster your independence? Average score – 8 [verbatim: “Not very independent. I’m spoiled.”]
  7. Am I consistent? Average score – 9.5
  8. Do I avoid harsh discipline? Average score – 10
  9. Do I explain my rules and decisions? Average score – 9.5
  10. Do I treat you with respect? Average score – 10 [verbatim: “A 10 even though you call me rude names”]

Not bad scores overall, but there is clear opportunity for me to help my girls become more independent…and avoid calling them rude names.  That last one is going to be tough I will admit.

Now on to husbandry.  I found a few articles after conducting a basic search, combined several attributes into one evaluation form, and delivered said form to Angela Lee:

  1. Do I display trust? Score – 10
  2. Do I show you that I love you? Score – 10
  3. Do I communicate openly? Score – 8
  4. Do I recognize your sacrifices for the relationship? Score – 10
  5. Do I help provide for the family? Score – 10
  6. Do I strive to be more human and magnanimous? Score – 10
  7. Do I meet your needs? Score – 10
  8. Do I provide adventure? Score – 10
  9. Do I tell you that I love you? Score – 10
  10. Do I respect your opinions? Score – 9

The take-away here is 1) I am a slightly better husband than I am a father and 2) I have some work to do respecting her opinions and practicing more open communication.  To that I say, she’s wrong and I don’t care to discuss it further.

While this was a fun, cheeky exercise, going through it facilitated good discussion with those whose perceptions of my performance matter most. The follow up discussion on how I can be a better dad and how to improve my already formidable husband skills will aid in my desire to be the best that I can be in all areas of my life.  So, how am I doing?  Practitioner seems to be the grade…for the moment.

Ghetto Toys and Other Signs That You Grew Up in 70’s Urban America


I'm the shorty in the headband
I’m the shorty in the headband

I use the word “ghetto” loosely.  Growing up in Section 8 housing in Cherry Hill, a neighborhood in Baltimore, MD, was vastly different in the 1970’s than it is today. While times were hard, it was still a relatively safe place to rip and run the streets without fear of fatality. Standard summer gear included a tank top, pants cut into shorts because there was no way you’d still be able to fit them again by fall, and generic “fish head” sneakers with tube socks.

We didn’t have much at all.  Nothing except space, opportunity and ingenuity. I will never become that old man that bores his children to death with tales of how things were far more tougher for me as a kid than it is for them today. But it was.

My mother had little money to speak of and whatever toys we received for Christmas had to last until next Christmas. But when you have outdoors, you don’t need much else. At least not for us street urchins. Being confined to the house because of rain or grounding was a prison sentence. After all, there was absolutely nothing on television and the neighborhood was magnetic.

Necessity forced us to be creative. After so many games of Hide and Seek, Hot Buttered Beans, Tag and others, you had to get down right inventive if you wanted a toy.

We learned to make our own sling shots by taking wire hangers from the closet and shaping them with pliers. We fashioned the sling out of rubber bands and bicycle tire tube. This is how it was done on the African savannah right?

Sling Shot

And of course we shot stones.  At everything.




Wanted a skateboard? No problem. We augmented those old steel roller skates (don’t act like I was the only one who owned a pair) by separating the front and back of the skate and nailing each end on to a piece of two by four or plywood. Why? Because the mate of the skate was long lost and we looked quite silly pushing ourselves on one skate in cut-off shorts and a dirty tank top. (Side note: you can find a picture of anything on the internet)

NunchuckOur inspiration derived from many sources.  Including Bruce Lee movies.  Who didn’t want a pair of nunchucks after watching a martial art film? My apologies to all the people in Cherry Hill who discovered their mops were missing from the back stoop.  With an old rusty saw blade, a bit of dog chain, and hammer and nails, we had the necessary materials needed to give each other concussions. We walked the dog with a rope around her neck so we didn’t quite need the dog chain anyway.

Necessity, the mother of invention, served us well.  She taught us that a two by four, rubber bands, a clothes pin, and pull tabs from soda cans would yield a serviceable projectile. I was so accurate with it that I hit an MTA bus driver in the leg from 50 paces just before he closed the bus door!

There are times when I am quite envious of my children. They have an overabundance of cool technology, smart phones, internet, and on-demand entertainment. But more often than not I lament for the life that they’ve been deprived of.  Not knowing what it’s like to race popsicle sticks in the gutter after a downpour.  Throwing eggs at the bus as it drove through the neighborhood. Playing golf with a stick, a soda bottle and a tennis ball.  I wouldn’t change my childhood for anything in the world.

There are times today that I have to call on that little boy to remind me that there is a creative spirit within that fuels the evolutionary process. That there is always a solution to a problem.  I remind myself that humble beginnings define the man that I am today.

This spring, after a big rain, I’m going to take my daughter to race popsicle sticks in the gutter.

Can A Brother Get Some Love…On Valentine’s Day

Is there any dispute that Valentine’s day is a holiday for women?  Let’s mark the one year anniversary of Man Up by exploring whether or not room exist for men to be honored on the love holiday.

If it’s a matter of dollars and cents, the scale tilts toward women.  In 2013, men spent twice as much as women on gifts for V-day at a rate of $108 to $53. Flowers and jewelry tend to push up the cost for men while women don’t usually buys those items.  Though in one survey, 14% of women said that they would send flowers to themselves.  Interesting.

Known as a day when lovers express their affection with greetings and gifts, V-day has morphed into something that is less equitable among the sexes and far more commercial in nature.  So much so that spending is in excess of $18 billion annually.

How is it less equitable?  Among those participating in the holiday, 64% men will purchase flowers while only 36% women will do the same.  I mean can a brother get some flowers?  I like flowers.  They are pretty and they smell good.  I like pretty, good smelling things.

Perhaps the issue is that women just don’t know what men want.

I reached out to a few fellas to find out what they would like from their partners and here’s what they said:

“Some good ole fashioned booty with no excuses” (yeah, I promised anonymity and that’s what I got), “time alone to have some adult conversation”, “hot oil massage…maybe a happy ending” (you can’t make this shit up), “chocolate, a couples massage and cap it off with dinner” (my kind of date, maybe I’ll give him a call), “a hand-written note saying how much she appreciates all the things…listing out what I’ve done over the year…cooking my favorite meal…and a quiet night in front of the fire with a glass of Zin” (he doesn’t ask for much, does he?), “cook my favorite meal…and a pedicure” ( I kid you not.  He said that!).

The group conversation took an interesting turn to mani/pedis and  his/her mani/pedis and things got weird from that point on.

My point is that men are ladies too.  We want to be thought of, appreciated, loved, cherished and nurtured too.  And according to the men in my highly scientific study, a mani/pedi just might get the job done.

My wife Angela asked me over the weekend what I wanted for Valentine’s Day.  I was more than a little surprised since I haven’t received a gift since…never.  I was so shocked that I don’t think I even responded.  If I had, I might have said some flowers, or a slate grey narrow tie, or a bottle wine that she personally chose, or an evening of fire, wine and nibbles.  If I could have responded, I might have chosen any one of those things.  The truth is, though, “no excuses, no strings attached, good ole fashioned booty” sounds pretty damn good to me.

So how about it ladies.  Step up and do something nice for your man this Valentine’s day.  The she in him deserves it.