0051   |   December 24, 2018

Role Models:
Inspiration or Imitation

C. Travis Webb, Seph Rodney, and Steven Fullwood apply some critical reflection to role modeling. Can one reject one’s status as a role model, as Charles Barkley famously did? Is there a difference between following a role model, and being inspired by one? Tune in and join the conversation.

C.T. WEBB 00:18 [music] Good afternoon, good morning, or good evening, and welcome to The American Age podcast. This is C. Travis Webb, editor of The American Age, and I am speaking to you from Orange County, California, and I’m talking to Seph Rodney and Steven Fullwood. Gentlemen, how you doing?
S. FULLWOOD 00:31 Hello.
S. RODNEY 00:32 Hey, good afternoon.
C.T. WEBB 00:34 Steven is British today [laughter].
S. FULLWOOD 00:36 Until I get tired of it, yeah.
S. RODNEY 00:38 Yeah. This is Seph. I’m speaking to you from the Bronx, the south Bronx. South, south Bronx. South Bronx. Something like that, right? Yeah, old lady’s tune. I’m an editor at Hyperallergic and adjunct faculty member at Parsons School of Design, and I’m tired, you all. I’m just glad to get to the end of the fall.
S. FULLWOOD 01:07 You can hear it in your voice. Glad you’re near the finish line. This is Steven G. Fullwood. I am the co-founder of Nomadic Archivists Project, and we work with folks who are interested in discovering or archiving their resources through oral histories, genealogy, and so forth. I’m coming to you from Harlem, and I am not a role model [laughter]. Simply because I dunk a basketball does not mean I should raise your kids [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 01:38 So this is to remind our listeners that what we try to do here is practice a form of intellectual intimacy. We try and give ourselves the space to understand one another, and to be understood. And Steven just prefaced our topic today, pretty artfully, actually. So role models. We’re going to talk about role models today. So Steven–
S. FULLWOOD 01:57 Surely. Take it away [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 01:58 –off to the races. Go.
S. FULLWOOD 02:00 So to encapsulate this, a role model is a person whose behavior, example, or success is or can be emulated by others, especially by younger people. It’s a term that Robert K. Merton came up with in the–
S. RODNEY 02:13 Robert King Merton. The [inaudible] sociologist. Yeah.
S. FULLWOOD 02:17 Yeah. Along with the glass ceiling, that work in mentoring, gatekeeper– these terms really didn’t have a lot of currency until, say, maybe the 1990’s. And around 1993, that’s when you get the Charles Barkley quote from the Nike ad, “I am not a role model,” and everyone was sort of angry about that. And I remember thinking, back then, that it was– I understand roles and models, I think, separately, as an idea. And then as a role model, I felt like growing up African American male, there were people we should be emulating; doctors, lawyers, and so forth. And I didn’t want to be any of those things. But then I was the children’s librarian around that time and I was being told that I was a role model, because I walked around with a tie and I had a job. And so I was kind of with Charles Barkley. I wasn’t dunking basketballs, I was putting books on shelves. But I’m not a role model either. People don’t need role models, they need the space to blossom and grow and be fuller human beings, so.
S. RODNEY 03:16 So here’s one of the things I really like about you, Steven. You are the kind of radical human being who will actually dress the part of being that kind of person that other people will say, “Oh, you should emulate him.” Like, “There he is. That’s the guy.” But then when people talk to you, you’re like, “No, no, no. No, no, no.” You need to not do that. You do the more radical thing of saying, “No, no, no, no, no. You don’t need to follow this template, you just need to figure out who you are and be given the space to blossom and grow.”
S. FULLWOOD 03:58 Sneak attack.
S. RODNEY 03:58 Yeah, yeah. Exactly [laughter]. And I think in a lot of ways, I mean, that’s one of the things I’ve always valued about Travis, too, is that Travis looks the part of this sort of stand-up, God and Country, ex-marine kind of like, “Yes, sir [laughter].” And then he opens his mouth and you’re like, “What the hell [laughter]?” This is radical stuff that just came out of there.
S. FULLWOOD 04:25 Who’s this lefty, hippie, philosopher guy?
S. RODNEY 04:27 Like, oh shit. What? Like America’s wounded and race is the separating [sickness?].
S. FULLWOOD 04:35 It’s a construct. It’s a construct.
S. RODNEY 04:37 Yeah, it’s like, “What?” Yeah. I think, I mean, I take your point, Steven. I think that there’s a way in which you have the wherewithal to resist being formulated in that way, right?
S. FULLWOOD 04:53 Mm-hmm.
S. RODNEY 04:53 Rhetorically, be formulated by other people. But I actually more fundamentally disagree with you, because I don’t think that you get to choose to not be a role model. I think that what happens is you exist in a social world, as Robert King Merton would more eloquently talk about. You exist in this matrix in which you, by being visible, as a black man, wearing a tie and being articulate, having a job– the thing is thrust upon you. It’s unavoidable. You can say, as Charles Barkley did, “I am not a role model,” but you don’t get to say it, in a really fundamental way. You know what I’m saying?
S. FULLWOOD 05:40 Mm-hmm. Yeah, I do. I do. I get that. And I think that I would tell myself the same thing, I think, in the sense that what you put out in the universe belongs to everyone else. And you have some idea and some way to shape it, but not really, because people are bringing their own ideas and perceptions. And also, we’re talking about survival. We’re talking about the idea that if you follow these rules, you’ll be safe. And well, that’s not necessarily true, but at least it gives you a script.
S. RODNEY 06:12 But it’s a noble lie, right? Like we talked about–
S. FULLWOOD 06:14 Oh, absolutely. It is a noble lie.
S. RODNEY 06:16 –several episodes back. The noble lie has its uses, and especially when you’re talking about survivalist techniques, right? Especially for young, black men. Let’s widen it out.
S. FULLWOOD 06:32 I would say yes.
S. RODNEY 06:32 For marginalized communities, right? For people whose life chances are, kind of from the get-go, curtailed within this particular socioeconomic, political sphere. That for these people, the stakes are really high. And I think that actually being generous enough– and it’s hard. I get it. But being generous enough, when you are in a position to act as a kind of role model for someone, to actually take that on and say, “Okay. It’s not something I would like to do, but I’m going to do this anyway. I’m going to make myself available as that kind of model template for someone else because the need is so great.”
S. FULLWOOD 07:25 Ahh. Travis, please. Come in and say something [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 07:27 So I didn’t jump in sooner, because I basically would just put another period on the end of what Seph said. I think it just doesn’t– I mean, there will be a caveat coming, but I don’t think it matters whether you want to be a role model. You just are, by the nature of being a socially embedded primate. Younger people are going to emulate what you do, or someone like you– are going to emulate someone like you. Now, I don’t necessarily– so here’s the thing. I think that that’s sort of just baseline, it doesn’t matter, you can never cast that off, it’s just what it means to be human. But I think that there are a variety of ways to express that, and I think by saying, “I am not a role model,” is, in fact, one way to viably go about doing that.
C.T. WEBB 08:25 And the example that came to mind, when you were talking about Charles Barkley, and in this idea of trying to promote a more radical freedom, was Jiddu Krishnamurti, who was a theosophist; part of The Theosophical Society. And was discovered on a beach in India, and was supposed to be the next Maitreya, the next great world teacher. And I forget how old he was– 20’s, 18, I mean, quite young, but he gave a pretty famous, in that world, a fairly famous speech in which he said, “Don’t follow me. Truth is a pathless land,” in that you cannot follow anyone to the truth. That there’s fundamentally– if you are following someone to the truth, you are already astray. And this was the note he played his entire life. Of course, while having untold number of accolades and a ranch built for him [laughter] and all this stuff. And I don’t mean to cast aspersions on that. People are going to do what they’re going to do. But I think that one has to just be okay with that reality. And then play that role however you want to play that role. Being an iconoclast is a very valuable thing in society. So I guess that ultimately, I see them in tension, but I don’t see them as contradictory.
S. FULLWOOD 10:06 So I’m reading a book right now called Fucked Up Reader. And what it is, it’s a combination–
C.T. WEBB 10:10 Okay. Great title [laughter]. Great title.
S. FULLWOOD 10:13 It collects a lot of narratives from people in the punk movement. Specifically in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and a few other places, and it’s in between these oral histories, so to speak. From the band leaders, band members, promoters, and so forth, they’ve got these do-it-yourself posters that a lot of punk movements– I mean, a lot of punks did, to kind of promote their stuff, and this was obviously before the internet. And the writer himself, Bryan Ray Turcotte, the guy who kind of brought it all together, wrote a book called Kill Your Idols, and I want to read that book, because I’m very excited about pulling and thinking more about the role model thing in a different way. Because right now, one of the guys in the book actually says, “Remember when you sat around with all those hippies and they would say, ‘It wasn’t like it was back when I was growing up?'” And he goes, “Now you’re sitting with former punks, and they’re saying exactly the same thing,” and how things kind of come around. But these men and women mention all of these role models, these people that they followed. But then the people that they didn’t want to follow, which were the mainstream, and they didn’t want to do that. But the mainstream kind of came and co-opted the movement in a way, in terms of its stress and its–
C.T. WEBB 11:32 And to be clear, the mainstream makes that possible. I mean, so even that is– like this is a symbiotic relationship. You need an establishment to rebel against. You can’t be a shaman alone. You can only be a shaman alone in relation to the village that you are– the community that you are forsaking and that you’re abandoning. I mean, this is the underlying premise in most renunciate communities, in relationship to the larger church. So yeah, you have these kind of select people that go off into caves or abbeys or whatever, and they go and they contemplate the nature of the universe or God, the Buddha, what have you. But the understanding is that those truths then get kind of distilled back into society. And I understand that there are a number of people that reject that altogether and want to tear down the whole thing. I think of Graham Greene’s, The Destructors– the short story, The Destructors. I mean, so I get that. That’s not where I stand. That’s not where I’m at, but I do get that, “Kill your idols,” that feeling. Also it’s a take on a Zen koan, which is, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Yeah. That’s right. So I mean, this– I just don’t see– I mean, it’s just reiterating what I said earlier. They’re clearly in tension, but they’re antagonists in a story. They’re not like particles of matter and antimatter that annihilate one another.
S. RODNEY 13:16 Right, right, right. So let’s get down to brass tacks a bit, because I think [laughter]–
S. FULLWOOD 13:22 Seph heard antimatter, he’s like, “We’re getting way too abstract [laughter].”
S. RODNEY 13:25 Floatie, floatie, antimatter.
C.T. WEBB 13:29 Which I appreciate. Thank you, Seph.
S. RODNEY 13:30 Yeah. We actually should do a podcast where we’re just smoking out the whole time [laughter]. Just get blunted up and just do it.
S. FULLWOOD 13:38 I could get behind that. Yes. Word.
S. RODNEY 13:40 But getting down to the nitty gritty, I’d like to hear from both of you, what your role models were, growing up?
C.T. WEBB 13:49 Great question. Great question.
S. RODNEY 13:50 Steven, we can start with you.
S. FULLWOOD 13:52 That was my question to you guys. All right. So since you asked first. So when I was younger, I remember loving musicians. ’70s, big band musicians. And I did try to become a musician and it did not take. No patience for practice or any of that. Then I remember really, really loving Prince and the Prince aesthetic and that he was different every album and the music was, “Ahh, you’re singing about having sex with your sister. Ooh.” And so that got me riled up in my teenage years. And then I started to really, really love black women writers of the late ’60s into the ’80s. So we’re talking Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni. These people really kind of inspired me, along with Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin. But they weren’t really role models, they were inspiring. I didn’t want to be them. I couldn’t write like them. I needed to write like myself.
S. FULLWOOD 14:52 And so there were people whose work inspired me, and I don’t know how close to the role model thing that actually is, or if it’s in it. And so maybe you guys can help me clarify, or move towards some clarity about that. But then I thought about the men in my neighborhood, who I felt embodied a certain kind of masculinity that I thought was really beautiful and effortless. I could romanticize about what it was like because I was outside of it, but it seemed like they had the man thing going, and I liked that. It was like, “Oh, okay. That’s what we’re doing? Oh, okay. Good. Okay. Oh, walk like this [laughter]. What’s up, brother? Yeah. What’s up, baby?” I liked that kind of flexibility. It’s like, “I like that. I like that.” But I couldn’t really think of a role model. I thought of people who inspired me to do work and demanded that I tell my own story, or tell the story of my families. You know what I mean? It made me work. So what about you guys?
S. RODNEY 15:52 After you, Travis, please.
C.T. WEBB 15:53 Okay. So I actually really appreciate what Steven just said, because I feel the same way, in that I really can’t think of anyone’s life that I’ve thought, “I want to live that life,” which is probably why I meandered to so many different things through my adult life. But certainly, as figures that have inspired me to work and to do something, people clearly are on that list. Samuel Johnson would be one of them, the British writer who wrote the first comprehensive English dictionary. I mean, while he was basically poor, he literally wrote for his supper, and started one of the first English magazines, The Rambler. Not the very first, but– basically, his whole life, had no money, but took under contract this– I don’t remember the sum, but not very much money, to write a dictionary. And did it, while he was writing some of the most remarkably compressed English essays that the language has ever produced. So I mean, that kind of focus and brilliance and dedication and obstinance is inspiring to me.
C.T. WEBB 17:23 James Baldwin, for one particular thing. I mean, he’s an incredible writer, obviously, unbelievably powerful orator, articulate. But there is one thing that I find absolutely just jaw-droppingly inspirational about him – and it’s actually one of the things that led me to do The American Age – which is that in spite of the concision with which he could call out the injustices in America, in spite of the fact that he had a front row seat for all of it, right? We’re not talking about people born in the 1980s or ’90s, that can look back on these images and videos of how blacks in marginalized– I mean, he was in it, right? I mean, he was there, and homosexual on top of that. In spite of all of those things, he still had a measure of hope about what he could do as a writer, as an artist. About what might eventually be possible in the United States. And so he would be on my list.
S. FULLWOOD 18:44 I thought you were going to say love, but hope is– yeah. I thought you were going to say love, because that’s–
C.T. WEBB 18:48 Sure. Yes. Absolutely. You know why people–
S. FULLWOOD 18:51 And to be able to witness that way. Do you know?
C.T. WEBB 18:53 I shy from that word, not consciously but subconsciously, because for me it’s freighted with so much about kind of a naive– not the way that you use it, Steven, but there’s a kind of naivete about a certain kind of whiteness that I really– no. Love is not going to enfranchise black folks. Sorry. No [laughter]. So that’s why I shy away from that word.
S. FULLWOOD 19:27 True that. Yeah, yeah. Wow.
S. RODNEY 19:30 That makes a lot of sense to me. I actually do the same thing, sort of, on Facebook and Twitter. I think when people say, “Love will win. Love will win.” I’m like, “Really [laughter]? When has it? When has love ever won? Like really?” So I think this is one of the ways in which you all, and I, are really brothers from different mommas, because I feel the same way. Like there are no people in my life who I can point to at any point in my development and say– or point to at any stage in my development and say, “Oh, that’s the person I want to live like.” There are aspects of people’s lives when I was growing up. I thought, “Oh, wow. I would like to be able to do that like Sting can,” or, “I’d like to be able to have what this person has or have access to these resources,” whatever.
S. RODNEY 20:25 But the heroes for me – I think that’s what I’m comfortable with calling these people – were, again, like both of you, were initially, at the moment when I sort of came into knowledge of myself, as a developing consciousness, like someone who wasn’t just tied to the religious story that my parents and my school and my church kept telling me. That basically I was just sort of appendage of the will of God. Once I kind of got out from under that, and started to see myself as my own person, the people that were heroes to me were– I mean, the first, absolutely was Sylvia Plath, because for me there– and I remember this very– I haven’t told this story in a long time. But I had this moment when– I think I was 16, and just don’t know what to do with myself. Just curious, nerdy, skinny, terribly socially awkward and didn’t know what to do with myself. I went on this date, and I remember just being kind of like shell shocked. It just didn’t go well and I just kind of didn’t know what to do with myself and I was just really upset. And of course, I couldn’t talk to my parents, because they were not good at that. They emotionally weren’t very capable.
S. RODNEY 22:02 I opened up, and thank God for– or thank the Gods for liberal arts education, because my mom happened to be getting her registered– she was studying towards becoming a registered nurse. She was going to Hunter and they made here take liberal arts courses. So she happened to have a copy of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, in the library at home. And so there were a couple of those books I’d already gone through. Like I’d read Of Mice and Men, because it was there. I think maybe Catcher in the Rye was there, but I’m not sure about that. Definitely Of Mice and Men, and The Pearl and The Red Pony, by Steinbeck, and Old Man and the Sea, by Hemingway. And I didn’t love any of those, but I was upset from this date that didn’t work out, and I came home and I read Fever 103 degrees, and it just spoke to me. Like this woman, I felt she got me. And it wasn’t until that I found out the whole marriage to Ted Hughes and killed herself and lah, lah, lah. But man, when I read her poetry, I was like, “What? What?”
S. RODNEY 23:27 She has this line from Morning Song, “The midwife slapped your foot soles, and your bold cry took its place among the elements.” It’s just like she has a command of language. And in another poem, she has this line– let me see. How does that poem go? “The Sunday lamb cracks in its fat. The fat sacrifices its opacity… A window, holy gold–” I’m forgetting the rest of it, or the middle of it, but it gets down to the last few stanzas, and she says– I’m trying to remember it. “The ovens glowed like heavens, incandescent. It is a heart, this holocaust I walk in, o golden child the world will kill and eat.” I was like, “What [laughter]?”
S. RODNEY 24:33 So I basically live through those poems for the next year and a half, and that’s what took me to taking a poetry workshop and working towards becoming a poet myself. That’s what took me back to undergrad, to get a degree in English, finally, after trying to go to school twice, and just failing out. Went back at 23. And it was the writers. It was the writers that were my heroes. It was the people like– eventually, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, definitely James Baldwin, but it started with the poets. It started with Plath, and then branched off and I read lots of other– there are lots of poets I’ve fallen in love with, subsequently. Philip Levine, Jorie Graham is definitely up there. They’re heroes for me, because they modelled a kind of intellectual– I guess the word is prowess. They found a way to be in the world that was coextensive with what they were interested in, and what they were good at.
S. RODNEY 25:49 And I took a long time to find my way there. It wasn’t really until my 40’s that things began to gel. And what I found is, that the way I write about art– I got an MFA in studio art, but didn’t find studio practice, at all, to be what I wanted to do or be in the world. But writing about art, coming from that poetry background, actually makes me a unique kind of writer. Because I think about what I see, to a certain extent, in poetic terms. Like I use that kind of language to get at what I experience in the visual art scene.
S. RODNEY 26:40 So, yeah. I mean, having these heroes are just– they’re invaluable. I literally can not imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t discovered Sylvia Plath at 16. I have no idea. And I should say, plus, walking into MoMA at 17, and seeing Louise Bourgeois, Sleeper II, in the sort of greatest hits gallery, or seeing Unique Forms of Continuity and Space, by Umberto Boccioni, the Italian futurist. These works, again, I had that moment of like, “What?” I didn’t know you could do that. I had no idea that this was possible. So in a way, those heroes– again, to quote another poet, Mark Doty, he says in Ararat, “Though my childhood became an immense sheet of darkening water, I was Noah, and I was his ark, and there were two of every animal inside me.” And I feel like those heroes were like that for me. They kind of took up residence in me. And so I became that ark that carried all these people with me, born into the life that I could be living, that I had to discover for myself.
C.T. WEBB 28:27 Two things that I want to add to what both you and Seph did that I became slightly self-conscious about, and mostly it was just because of time. I definitely have female role models, and the two that immediately came to mind was Carolee Schneemann, the artist who did Meat Joy, is probably the most famous one. And then, she recently just passed away, but the Islamicist, Patricia Crone, who was at The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and did some of the most path-breaking, iconoclastic work on the history of Islam in the world. And at a time that female scholars were not very prevalent in Islamic studies, and did it in her way, and did it brilliantly. So, yeah. So we probably coming towards the end. Steven, do you want to wrap us up? Do you want to wrap us up, since you proposed the topic and you led us into it?
S. FULLWOOD 29:37 Well, kind of keeping with this idea of, maybe not role models [crossed out?], but people that influence us, I can say this quite easily, that both of you, in the way that you approach things, it’s like a weekly dose of being inspired about things that I don’t know–
C.T. WEBB 29:55 Thank you, very much.
S. FULLWOOD 29:56 –framing ideas in ways that I’m like, “Oh, you can do that?” Kind of like Seph said, “You can do that?” And so I love that, because it pushes me to that gold spot. Well, I won’t use gold. I will say that it pushes me to my best thinking and my best feeling about things, and I really enjoy that when people do that. So I look forward to these conversations. Boom.
S. RODNEY 30:17 Nice.
C.T. WEBB 30:17 All right. Well, thank you very much. All right.
S. RODNEY 30:19 Thank you, Steven. Yeah.
C.T. WEBB 30:20 Gentlemen, as always, thank you for the conversation, and we’ll talk to you next time, when we revisit the topic of unlucky days. So thanks everyone, for the day. All right. Take care. Bye-bye. [music]

References

First referenced at 10:06
Bryan Ray Turcotte

“Originally from San Jose, California, Bryan moved to Los Angeles in 1989 and has lived there ever since. He worked for infamous Los Angeles label, slash records, and played bass in the band, black market flowers.
In 2005 Bryan co-founded his own music production company, Beta Petrol. The company has since produced music for Airbnb, Vans, Google, Coca Cola, Nike and many more. Bryan is often hands-on with the company’s music supervision and original composition.”

Bryan Ray Turcotte

First referenced at 11:32

Graham Greene

“Henry Graham Greene OM CH (2 October 1904 – 3 April 1991) was an English novelist and author regarded by some as one of the great writers of the 20th century. Combining literary acclaim with widespread popularity, Greene acquired a reputation early in his lifetime as a major writer, both of serious Catholic novels, and of thrillers (or “entertainments” as he termed them).” Purchase through Amazon here.

First referenced at 20:25

Sylvia Plath

“Sylvia Plath was born in 1932 in Massachusetts. Her books include the poetry collections The Colossus, Crossing the Water, Winter Trees, Ariel, and The Collected Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Plath is credited with being a pioneer of the 20th-century style of writing called confessional poetry. Her poem “Daddy” is one of the best-known examples of this genre.” Purchase on Amazon here.

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1619: Music, Blackface, and Performing Freedom

The hosts discuss the history of “performing blackness” in music, as well as other forms of media. What does it mean to “co-opt” another culture’s music? What’s fair and what’s foul in artistic expression?

Climate Change: Art as Social Practice

Climate Change: Art as Social Practice

Contemplating the consequences of climate change is not only the purview of scientists. Artists are also helping to imagine the contours of a warming planet, as well as re-imagine what possibilities might emerge from this global crisis.

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