Social Memory

Adult Education


One of the things I’ve found myself saying to people of late is that while the First Amendment guarantees your freedom of speech, it doesn’t give you a license to say whatever wackadoodle thing that pops into your head.

It also doesn’t give you permission to talk as loudly as possible about things that are really no one’s business but yours for hours at a time despite the entreaties of others that you Shut. The. Hell. Up.

But while I’ve said that to people, I’ve never written about it until now. In fact, if it weren’t for something that happened to me yesterday, I probably never would have written about it.

However, I feel compelled to do it now and as this posting goes on, you’ll understand why a clip of a show from the man who is singlehandedly keeping the DNA testing industry in business, Maury Povich, is relevant.

When I’m not sharing my thoughts on all things political as Your Mad (political) Scientist, I find myself in a classroom in an alternative high school here in Philadelphia teaching Media Arts.

The kids I teach are kids aged 16-22 who have either dropped out or have been asked to leave most of the other schools they’ve tried to attend. For some, the impetus to leave came from the discovery that they were about to have a kid of their own. Others had to leave due to one of the hazards that come with a career in what I call Street Corner Pharmacy: a date with the Criminal Justice System.

Others just left because they felt that a regular school was too constricting because in order to do well you’re required to come in every day and it’s a population of kids that with very few exceptions is African American.

They’re a challenging group because they’re largely raising themselves. And when you’re raising yourself, you kind of feel like no one can tell you anything. Most of them have parents who weren’t too much older than they are now when they were born. Many of them are on their third or fourth foster home. Others have been on the streets since they were old enough to walk.

Because of that, the phrase I hear most commonly is “I’m grown! You can’t tell me nothing!” I also get a lot of lectures from them about how I have to be respectful to them despite the fact that they often come into my class and talk nonstop while I’m trying to present a lesson.

But despite their best efforts to run me out of the building, something that several of them have admitted to me since, they’ve found that the only person more stubborn than they are in some cases is, well, Ms. Clay. Occasionally, I’ll hear a student tell a classmate “Don’t mess with Ms. Clay! She’s not trying to hear it!”

(That makes me smile by the way…)

Anyway, among the things I try and get across to them is that you can tell what’s going on in a particular society by the looking at the art it produces. I also try to get across to them that how they’re perceived by the larger society is directly connected to the face they put forth to the world through the prism of media.

The Bad Girls Club: notice the paddle…

I often tell them that the reason why folks clutch their purses a little tighter when they get on the bus, or would rather not sit next to them when they get on the subway is because they present themselves in a light that is far less than complimentary.

So as a means of self-exploration, I gave my kids the choice of two assignments for their final project in my Media Arts class: they could either do a documentary on anything they were interested in taking a long-form look at or do a photo essay of 6 to 8 pictures that took a look at a day in their lives. I was hoping through this essay that they would take a look at their everyday lives and maybe see what was good, bad, or needed changing.

So, I figured that because it was a high school Media Arts assignment common sense would prevail.

That hope was smashed against the wall when one of my students wanted to include a picture of someone having sex “doggy style” as part of her final project. After I got a look at the picture, I said “NO! You cannot include this!”

Her response: “Don’t judge me Ms. Clay! This is what I like to do!”

I wasn’t judging. I just didn’t want to see it.

And I really didn’t want to hear the conversation that came next….a conversation that included such things as how much “dick” someone was going to get over the Thanksgiving holiday, a story from one of my kids about how her lesbian lover “sucked her ass” and made her reach orgasm, the various sex toys lesbians use, how a kid’s naked mother came busting into the room where she and her boyfriend were having sex and said that if things didn’t quiet down that she was going to join the party, and, and this is my personal favorite, how having braces can be an impediment to having good oral sex.

Don’t laugh…you see these in Philly all the time…

And this was just in the first three minutes of this conversation and despite my constant interruptions of  “Could you please stop this?!” followed closely by “Could y’all shut up and leave my room please?!”

After they left, I relished the quiet.

I also wanted to go home and take a shower because I felt so sexually violated.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a prude or anything. But I couldn’t help but think that these kids were having this conversation in front of a teacher.

A teacher.

Someone who is technically an adult.

Now I’ve had Klansmen say some pretty vile things to me, but this conversation yesterday just made me want to cover my ears like a little kid and go “lalalalala”.

And why in the world would you think that it’s proper to share the disadvantage posed by braces when performing fellatio in your high school Media Arts class?

I guess it’s because we have largely become a TMI society. Thanks to folks like Maury Povich, Jerry Springer, Dr. Phil, the Bad Girls Club, and Shaunie O’Neal’s “League of Extraordinary Jump-Offs”, otherwise known as the “Basketball Wives”, the perception is that we can and should share every aspect of our lives.

The League of Extraordinary Jump Offs…

I mean hey, that’s why the camera phone was invented, right? I know that my goal in life is to wind up on World Star Hip-Hop…

(Actually, it isn’t. But folks Sarcasm Meters are still a little off post-election…)

In any case, when I walked into class this morning, still reeling from getting taught some serious sex ed. from a bunch of kids yesterday, I said the following to my students:

“I’m letting you know right now, if anyone even mouths the word “pussy” and “cat” doesn’t immediately follow it, you’re getting suspended!”

Like I said earlier in this piece, one of the problems that these kids have is the fact that they’re largely raising themselves and when you’re raising yourself, you see yourself as the adult, something that can cause a problem or two.

It also means that the adults that are supposed to be your role models are more like the Bad Girls. Or the League of Extraordinary Jump-Offs. Or the Drug Man on the corner. Or that much older man (or in some cases woman) who has introduced you to a sexual world that there’s no way you can understand or successfully negotiate at your age…even if you think you’re grown.

But it’s not always as bleak as yesterday felt. I do have my victories.

For example, there’s one kid in my class that’s either walking into my class late and being really disruptive (meaning that he wasn’t able to connect with the weed man that morning) or is totally mellowed out (meaning that said weed has been acquired.) One day, an obvious Day Without Weed, he did the whole manic thing.

I told him, forcefully, to sit down. His response was “My Mom don’t talk to me like that!”

My response: “Well maybe if she did, you wouldn’t be doing this mess!”

I haven’t had much of a problem in this regard since. I guess it’s because every kid is looking for someone to set a boundary. My colleagues are much better than I at that, but I’m getting there.

However, I’m feeling really burned out.

So I’m going to make as much of a difference as I can until that happens because as I said, many of these kids have kids….
                                   ….and I’d like for them to have the chance their parents didn’t necessarily get.

"I have a dream…." and I got it for half off!

Right now as I’m writing this, folks around the country are participating in service projects, going to ecumenical services, or doing other things to benefit their communities as part of the observance of the 83rd birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Here in Philly, the folks at Global Citizen put together a series of projects that gave just about every community in the Delaware Valley some needed assistance that it probably wouldn’t have gotten due to budgetary constraints.

 Just what Dr. King would have wanted.

When the King Holiday became reality 25 years ago, and folks were trying to figure out how to celebrate it, the one concern that everyone had about it was that it might become just like every other holiday: a day off and not much else.

To try and counteract that, former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford, a man who was a contemporary of Dr. King’s and had worked with him during the Civil Rights Movement, suggested that the holiday become “a day on, not a day off”, a day of service, not a day at the mall.

And for the first 10 or so years, that’s exactly how it worked. People took to the streets to plant gardens, build playgrounds, paint school buildings, cook and deliver food to the hungry, and perform other kinds of service to mankind. Interfaith ecumenical services (because you can’t honor a minister without having some sort of church service), luncheons honoring those who work toward King’s “beloved community” and educational activities have also been a part of the observation of the King Holiday.

(There is also a full slate of NBA basketball games to commemorate the King Holiday because after a long day of giving back to the community, catching a game with your buds is a great way to unwind..)

But over the last few years, I’ve started to see something connected to the King Holiday that I was really hoping it could avoid.

What might that be, you might ask?

Well, it’s this…

Why Sears and KMart are losing market share…

This, in case the caption isn’t clear, is an ad from KMart for an MLK Day sale. I went looking for (and asked my Facebook friends to send me) ads like this after seeing Sears MLK Day appliance sale ad on television.

It’s not the only one that I saw. Everyone from clothing retailers like Betsey Johnson to car dealerships, to even the Home Shopping Network has a slew of discounts connected to the birthday of a man who would have reacted to it in much the same way that Jesus reacted to the moneychangers in the temple during Passover.

And, and I’m saying this because I’m starting to think that we can’t help ourselves, the more heinous damage from a retail perspective being done to the King Holiday, a holiday that African Americans worked hard to make possible, is, of course, self-inflicted.


The levels on which this is wrong defy description. This is for a party in Miami. There were others, including, and this was my personal favorite, a nightclub in Washington, DC offering the “I have a dream” cocktail.

(God, do I wish I was kidding!)

Now don’t get me wrong. I know that I live in a nation where “Cash Rules Everything Around Me” is the law of the land, something that was codified when the Supreme Court decided to give corporations personhood through the Citizens United decision.

Because of this, I also know that no holiday is safe from crass commercialization. Don’t believe me? Go to any CVS pharmacy the day after Halloween. You’ll see that in one day it’s changed from spooky ghosts and witches hats to a winter wonderland, complete with motorized Dancing Santas.

I also realize that there are folks out there, many of whom are ensconced on the boards of the very corporations responsible for most of the crass commercialization of our holidays, who are still pissed off that King has a federal holiday because they saw him as a Communist agitator. Wanting to see such things as  humane treatment for workers, people being able to support themselves by making a living wage, and true equality for everyone, and being willing to take it to the streets to make it a reality, can make you unpopular in some quarters.

But I thought that we could, as a nation, at least let the King Holiday maintain the significance its supposed to have for at least a little while longer. There’s still too much that needs to be done in our communities for the holiday to become just another opportunity to hit the mall.

So what do we do? Good question.

Maybe someone can get Sen. Harris Wofford back on camera to remind us of why the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King deserved a holiday in the first place…

Me and my bud Brian Marcus at the King Memorial

My Parents’ Wedding Anniversary

I woke up this morning and turned on my television set, which was last on A&E, where I had been watching “Storage Wars” I believe

What greeted me was a documentary on the Sept. 11 Terrorist Attacks. This film showcased the attacks in real time from the moment that the first airplane hit World Trade Center Tower One to when Tower Two went down, including the folks who felt hopeless enough to jump to their deaths.

Not really caring to linger on that visual, I changed the channel.

But it seemed as if everywhere I went, the terrorist attacks followed me.

They were featured on “SportsCenter”. All of the Sunday Morning programs originated from Ground Zero. MSNBC even re-ran the Sept. 11, 2001 edition of the “Today Show”.

And don’t even get me started on Fox Sport’s coverage of the NFL. I fully expected Howie Long to put on a flight suit and make his way to an aircraft carrier before the kickoff of the Philadelphia Eagles/St. Louis Rams game.

It was patriotism run amok…and when an Army Brat tells you that, it’s an issue.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with America and Americans remembering a day that really did a number on us as a country. In addition to the loss of close to 3,000 people, we lost our sense of security as a nation to a large extent.

Heck, I can even remember where I was when the attacks happened. I was on I-95 north on my way to work. I saw a sign that said, basically, that New York was closed, something that made me say “Well, I guess I won’t be going there today…”

When I got to the picket lines of the teacher’s strike I was covering and found no teachers there, I also figured that something was up. I went to the Union Hall and found out that the teacher’s weren’t picketing because a plane hit the World Trade Center tower and the union president was afraid that her daughter was on one the planes. (She was flying from Boston to LA). That began one of those days where being a reporter is a good news/bad news proposition. The good news is that you have a hot story that everyone can localize. The bad news is, you’re not able to process it for yourself until you get home.

(Editor’s Note: I’m still pissed off at ABC for showing the airplane hitting Tower Two on a continuous loop all night. I couldn’t sleep behind that shit. If I ever meet the producer who thought that was a good idea, he or she will get slugged. That is all…)

But that said, the loss of our sense of security has led to America doing some things that have really pissed me off over the last 10 years. There was a time after the attacks happened that I couldn’t get on an airplane without damn near having to submit to a full-cavity search. And remind me sometime to tell you about the fun I had getting my souvenir baseball bat from Turner Field in Atlanta home on an airplane without breaking it.

And I’ll be kind enough to spare you my diatribe on the fact that we’ve decided that if it’s a choice between liberty and security, we’ve opted for security. USA PATRIOT ACT. I’m just sayin’.

A Facebook friend posted a blurb that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman put on his blog about the commemorations of Sept. 11 and how subdued they seemed this year. He also says that in light what happened next, they should be subdued.

What happened after 9/11 — and I think even people on the right know this, whether they admit it or not — was deeply shameful. The atrocity should have been a unifying event, but instead it became a wedge issue. Fake heroes like Bernie Kerik, Rudy Giuliani, and, yes, George W. Bush raced to cash in on the horror. And then the attack was used to justify an unrelated war the neocons wanted to fight, for all the wrong reasons.

A lot of other people behaved badly. How many of our professional pundits — people who should have understood very well what was happening — took the easy way out, turning a blind eye to the corruption and lending their support to the hijacking of the atrocity?

The memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned; it has become an occasion for shame. And in its heart, the nation knows it.

I wish that I could disagree with Krugman. But I can’t. It’s still not safe to be a Muslim in the United States. We’re still in two wars, only one of which makes sense to me. And our economy is still all kinds of jacked up, something that’s led to the further decimation of the news business.

But while I could dwell on all of that, something that it appears the TV industry would love to see me do and something that would really give me something to talk about in my Media and Social Memory class on Tuesday, I’ve kinda been raging against the dying of the Sept. 11 light over the last couple of years.

Why? Because of the date these bastards chose to play “Let’s crash the airplanes into the towers!”

You see, Sept. 11, more than a few decades ago, my parents, Jack and Ollie Clay, got married.

My dad was in the Army and mom worked in a factory near Paris, Kentucky, which is where they got married in my grandparent’s living room. They were together for over 40 years and as far as my dad was concerned, there was no one more important to him than my mom and the rest of us.

I have since found out that Sept. 11 is also the birthday of my friend Carol Colby-Hubler’s late father, the father of Kim Pearson, journalism professor extraordinaire, Annette John-Hall, one of my favorite newspaper columnists, my old neighbor Kyle Brown who has always amazed me with his intellect, me and Carol’s former classmate Joyce Artemus, and a whole host of other people who have made their mark on the world.

So while it would make sense for me to concede this day to the assholes who barged in on it, and the havoc they created as a result, I refuse.

My mom and dad loved each other until the day he died. And I’m convinced that she will still love him until she’s no longer on the planet.

So to me, this day isn’t about the acts of some misguided people. It’s about love. The love between my parents. The love Carol and Kim have for their dads. The love that Annette has for the written word. The love that Kyle has for knowledge. The love I have for all of them and the people who I call my friends and family.

A love that’s stronger than any hate that can be brought to bear.

So while I’ll say a prayer for those lost to the violence that befell us as a nation on Sept. 11, 2001, I’ll also say another prayer thanking God for the love that surrounds me every day.

Because in the end, love is stronger than hate, any day of the week.

Here’s a commercial that Spike Lee did for State Farm to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of Sept. 11. It’s actually kind of cute having kids singing “Empire State of Mind”. Thankfully, they chose the only verse that kids could sing without raising the eyebrows of their parents, Could you imagine a kid singing: “City never sleeps, but i’ll slip you an Ambien”?