Matt Brandstein

A Work in Progress

Matt Brandstein

Matt Brandstein
Chicago, Illinois, USA
January 29
Under construction.


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AUGUST 27, 2008 11:48PM

Tribal Challenges

Rate: 15 Flag

African Masks

A colleague of mine held a dinner party in his new apartment in a neighborhood of New York City that for the past few years has been experiencing an economic resurgence. A shift in the caliber of businesses and the style of residents was immediately noticeable upon this most recent visit. Pawn shops had been replaced by Starbucks. Jittery crack whores were no longer able to hustle in between the throngs of successfully invitro-fertilized middle-aged mothers pushing their triple seat strollers. Even the rough neck street thugs seemed to have abandoned their business corners for bleaker pastures, given the more modern novelty of a constant police presence. The neighborhood officially lost its ghetto credibility last winter when the Newport "alive with pleasure" billboard was permanently retired.

The apartment layout demonstrated the gilded bouquet of trust fund decor. Clearly, this tenant's eye-catching, grown up furniture, created by skilled barn potters, was light years ahead of the dangers of Ikea particle board degeneration syndrome that I face with the furniture of my lower income lifestyle.

I was most struck by the beauty of a large collection of antique African tribal masks. These ornately carved, rich mahogany faces were certainly stoic if not possibly scornful for being reduced to spend the next few decades as wall art trivia for the amusement of a cavalier white guy. I wonder if the deserved African inheritor of the masks would feel an even exchange having my friend's suburban Prom portraits taken under a spinning disco ball behind a backdrop of shooting neon stars to adorn the walls of his dwelling.

I find assumptions of racism to be especially maddening, not to mention thorny to maneuver through when cavorting with the upper echelon of academically advantaged white adults in a culturally progressive city like New York. Normally, among this seemingly liberal minded crowd, racism is expressed with excruciating subtlety, often manifesting itself in nonverbal decisions as the result of hard-line class indoctrination that frowns upon the commonness of racist affirmation. So I was especially shocked when a rather bookish female guest leaned into me during the dessert course to inform me that she was thinking of moving into this neighborhood now that it's "not as dark."

Fortunately, I've seen more than enough late 1970s and early 1980s situation comedy very special episodes to know the proper handling of this form of bigotry. I cleared my throat and with the fictional support of my extended television family that includes Arnold Jackson, Willis Jackson, Kimberly Drummond, Mr. D., Mrs. Garrett, The Gooch, Tutti Ramsey, Mr. T., George and Weezy Jefferson, Florence, Rerun, Raj, Duane, Dee, Florida, James, JJ, Wilona, Michael, Thelma, Bookman, Sweet Daddy and Penny, as well as the consent of the room's faction of authentically African deities, I boldly declared her racism.

I had foolishly expected the thunderous applause of a live studio television audience. Instead, my remark was followed by a few angrily pleaded defense clichés from "I have black friends" to "give me a fucking break! I was raised by a black woman for Christ's sake."

Exploring the condescension underscoring her friendships, deconstructing the context of her childhood housekeeper's maternal skills and explaining a unified theory of class, race and gender inequity was proving to be an enormous strain under the impending guttural finale of some poorly digested baba ganouch. Faced with hashing it all out or prematurely leaving the dinner party, knowing the reality that I was at least 23 subway stops away from the trusted privacy of my bathroom, I ashamedly abandoned my cause for justice like a true coward to head back into Manhattan to take a shit.

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There are some people who talk about missing the community of the old OS beta. It was nice, that fellowship of friends - but I tell you what. I am here for the writing. I am here specifically to prowl around for good writing. In fact, I am here for the Fellowship of Great Writing. And I hereby leave a bouqet at your altar (which I suspect is not decorated with an authentic tribal mask, though quite possibly a giant sombrero).
Matt, I have an hour calendar for marking the hours between your posts. Be careful, your posts might be more addictive than meth.
In that case, I guess I'll have to admit I'm an addict.

Written with care, grace and rare skill. be well..
If you are not already aware of it, you might like the work of Chris Ware, a gifted cartoonist in Chicago. His work has been on the cover of the New Yorker several times.
Interesting how the photo is cropped so close on top.

Even minorities are racist. Such a seemingly inescapable sin.
I'm confused (a familiar state). Is racism endemic to various choices in the composition of images?

Or is there a latent desire for "ample real-estate" (space besides subject) in positing an image?

Maybe the cropping is just a function of the elusive image/format ratio we are dealing with here.

And hey, we are all sinners,..........well, maybe not me and Matt.
Nor you Sandra (a very sweet person).
I remember when I first went off to college, one of my dorm mates said, "Oh, you're from the South. They're very racist there. Of course, I would never marry one."

And I sat there thinking, "One? One what?" It actually took a minute to realize what she was talking about. I think I might have actually recoiled when I realized, because she immediately became defensive and started saying, "What? What?"

Better to take a shit than be surrounded by shits. Er, to put it sort of inelegantly.
two separate unrelated observations...

Was she referring to Rednecks, or African Americans?

Folks always try to find clever ways of dismissing a person when they have decided that person has nothing to offer them. Shyness was something that always kept me out of the circle of the"smart set" in college. Being Southern in their eyes (Kansas, not really southern, but sort of on the cusp, we were still Yankees), I had to endure numbers of jokes about farm life, animals, toothless folk, nothingness, cow shit, name it, but it was not anywhere near, by anyone's imagination, the same that an African American might have to endure.
I've developed a fascination with reading your author tags.

Health and feminism are my two favorites for this one.
The more I read your posts, the more convinced I am that shit makes the world go round. Not love or money or the other popular things...
Keep your hands off my new man, Sandra!

Shit! We even like the same writers. But I am sad to note, that I am not writing much interesting these days. Just crazy political rants and pictures of pots.

But that's ok because Matt here has taken up the torch for slightly skewed observations and is running with it.

I agree with your comment here. More flowers on your door, Matt.
You make me laugh while actually hitting on a few critical points, the very best writing for me. And it rolls through like water, no weird "literary tricks" to stumble over. Your natural style is awesome.

And if you are working at it, I am even more impressed, because you would never guess it.

For some labored text beat into me by years of philosophy argumentation in college, see my blog. But I highly suggest you just look at the pictures!
...I ashamedly abandoned my cause for justice like a true coward to head back into Manhattan to take a shit.

So, it would be safe to say you didn't give a shit?

Thank you, again, for making me look forward to my morning dose of OS.
This is so on the money it's painful. I instantly heard that canned audience gasp when I read the "not as dark" line. This woman clearly did not watch television as a child.

I endured all those jokes, too. Plus, hilarious beliefs like, did we all go barefoot all the time, did most of my class get married at 15, did we all marry our cousins, etc. etc. Not to mention the fun made of my accent, especially when it concerned words like "fire" and "naked." That was okay. Annoying, occasionally, when a generalization came up about how stupid we all were or when someone used "ya'll" wrong, greeting me when I was by myself with it to tease me, but otherwise, it was okay.

In answer to your thought she was referring to rednecks ... sadly, no. She meant anyone who was black, because she clarified with "I'm not racist or anything. I just wouldn't date one" after I recoiled. So, not redneck.
This is a really well-done piece.

Now I want to know what neighborhood we're talking about -- I'm one of those gentrifying assholes, moving from the Upper East Side to Cobble Hill this weekend.

This racist lady needs to be sent to a reeducation camp in Fort Greene.
Madame, why are you moving from the Upper East Side to Cobble Hill? And Matt, what's up with your perma-lock on the front page? Freaky Troll is desperate to get there and she offered me cake (cake!) if I could tell her. I still haven't gotten my cake, but my advice to her: become Alexandria Dobkowski or Matt Brandstein. Really, that's all it takes.
Madame, why are you moving from the Upper East Side to Cobble Hill?

Because I live 20 minutes form the subway, on East End, and I don't like the people or the scene up here. Whereas in the Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens/ Boerum Hill area, there's people my age, on my wavelength. People are NICE, and young. And yuppies. Like me.
See, good thing it wasn't me, because I might have said, "Oh, yes, all those new streetlights are a great addition, aren't they?"

Great story!
I found this story well-written and riveting, but not surprising. The well-to-do can often be the worst racists, because they are often of a background and position that allows them to move through life without ever having to truly consider issues of race. No, instead they simply internalize their own superiority on a far deeper level than the lower classes, and (at least subconsciously) associate the less fortunate as somehow, beneath it all, "deserving" it, as the fortunate "deserve" their fortune. This is one way they preserve an internal sense of justice and conscience.

And really, didn't that woman simply articulate something that most of her more cautious friends and acquaintances often think to themselves? The sometimes overt racism of the "rednecks" and the "poor white trash" is far from the worst feature on the torn landscape of bigotry. It's instead the insidious, subconscious, ornamented, and veiled racism of those clever enough to cloak their feelings - the hidden hobgoblin of the privileged - that does the deepest and most widespread damage.
EP, I think there's enough Matt for both of us. But just. Gary might have to go without.

sinnily yours,