Tuesday, October 14, 2008

October 14, 2008: The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

The soft bigotry of low expectations

I recently heard this phrase from one of George W. Bush’s greatest hits now being used to hit back at the Republican choice of Sarah Palin for vice president. Dubya had used it to say that holding disadvantaged children to a lesser standard was selling them short… basically dumbing down the requirements so that these kids may “succeed.” No matter what your party affiliation, saying that someone performed well in a debate because she didn’t have a complete meltdown is the embodiment of the soft bigotry of low expectations.

You’re probably asking yourself why this is relevant in a blog for and about writers. Don’t skip ahead.

Remember sometime ago, I told you that I would be self publishing my latest joint, called Triptych, joining the ranks of greats like Gloria Mallette, Margaret Johnson Hodge, and Tina McElroy Ansa? Many of you out there are self published and are acutely aware that, when you choose to go that route, you must do almost everything yourself, from writing your own copy and back matter, to designing your own cover. For Triptych, I had this beautiful cover in mind consisting of three sketches – geddit? It’s a triptych – and contacted an artist that I’d met a couple of years ago at BEA. He was bubbly and personable, and he was a brothah. I try very hard to support artists of color. I had seen his work, so obviously, he had the goods.
When I spoke to the brothah on the phone, he discussed the techniques he would use to give the drawings a simulated charcoal look … blah, blah, blah. For a writer, I’m decidedly left brained. All I cared about was his promise that he could make my really tight deadlines for the agreed-upon price. “Naturally, I can’t start until you send me half the price upfront through Paypal,” he said. “Naturally,” I said.

This fast became a Chinua Achebe novel as soon as I gave the brothah the deposit – Things Fall Apart.

The torrent of excuses began. I would leave him messages, and he wouldn’t call me back, but when, by chance, I’d catch him at home, he’d answer the phone like he was just chilling, like he wasn’t feeling any pressure to return my calls. Then I had to hear about how he and his business partner had parted ways, and she took his scanner with her, and he couldn't get a hold of her, because she had had a nervous breakdown, and how he couldn’t get to a Kinko’s, because he lived out in the boondocks. I wasn’t even trying to hear it. He asked me for a drop-dead date by which I would need the artwork. I gave it to him. He said he would call me if he couldn’t make the deadline.

The deadline came and went. No phone call. Two days after the deadline, I had to physically hold my tongue when I called him. “Oh, my wife didn’t call you?” he asked. “Nope,” I said, wondering why on earth his wife would be calling me when he was the artist. “Yeah, well… umm… we’re going to refund your money and cut you a company check.” Here are the Cliff Notes: he couldn’t make the deadline, which was moot now, because of the circumstances and because of – he actually said this next thing! – MY IMPATIENCE. I was ten minutes from Jersey, my foul-mouthed alter ego. When he told me that it would take him seven to 14 days to refund my deposit, I was five minutes from Jersey. “Why can’t you just send it back to me through PayPal?” I asked. Another torrent of excuses… the account from which he would draw the funds isn’t connected to Paypal, so they’ll have to send me a company check… blah blah blah. I was like, whatever. It was then that this blog entry began writing itself in my mind. It’s taking amazing self-control on my part not to call this brothah out right here, right now.

So, back to the soft bigotry of low expectations. Should I have suffered and cut this brothah even more slack, just because we’re “skin folk?” Aren’t we, as clients whose money is just as green as those from the dominant culture, entitled to demand the same level of service that those from the dominant culture get – regardless of the color of the person we’re contracting with to do the job? We say that we’re looking to play on a more level field. Shouldn’t we be entitled to expect that this start first with our own people? Focusing on me, no matter the color of the artist, the fact remains, my deadline is shot to hell.

I was still struggling with these questions when, two weeks later, I received the so-called “company check” – a postal money order. In the enclosed note, the artist was contrite, even promising to send me a complementary original work of art under separate cover. It’s been months now. Shockingly, the artwork has yet to arrive. I won’t be holding my breath while I wait for it to show up…

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