Sunday, July 13, 2008

wereallnumberone #6: we all watch it for the car wrecks anyway ...

Mauricia Grant

Nikki Giovanni

I don’t get NASCAR. But my students dig it, and I’m cool with that. Actually, I’m growing to like it. -- Nikki Giovanni, from a lecture at the University of Arizona, February 23, 2006

At the apex of one’s high regard for himself/herself and for fellow human beings, or what Mazlov calls “self-actualization,” we are our most innovative, most able to collaborate with people of different backgrounds to solve the problems we all have in common, and most of all, we possess morality. Until we reach that point, we allow prejudices to hinder our ability to seek solutions to the common problems of humanity and fail to actualize our creative capacities -- ultimately limiting our emotional health, physical safety, and financial success. Self-actualization on a wide-scale is paramount if the project of multiculturalism is to ultimately succeed in America.

As I sit to write this morning, two black women are inspiring conflicting feelings about the outcome of the project of multiculturalism. And I bet that after hearing about the case of Mauricia Grant, Nikki Giovanni might take her praise for NASCAR back, faint though it may have been.

Virginia Tech Professor Nikki Giovanni is one of my favorite poets and scholars. She is astute, humorous, inspirational, clever, and her writing and pedagogy reflect a paradoxical truth about cross-culturalism that should be a mantra for anyone interested in social justice -- We all want simple things in life, yet understanding one another’s wants may be the most difficult undertaking of all.

Giovanni, once a militant, revolutionary poet whose involvement in the Black Arts Movement marked her as an artist both at the vanguard of black modernist poetry and the civil rights movement, is now a professor at Virginia Tech University, a predominately white institution in the decidedly rural Virginia town of Lynchburg. And though her students’ heroes include “George Bush, Dale Earnhardt, and Triple H,” and favorite poets include “George Strait, Hank Williams, and Donald Rumsfeld,” she enjoys teaching them about poetry and literature immensely. And she even claims to learn as much from them as they do from her. Why? Because she understands that though their worldviews and cultural affinities are different, their desires to appreciate art and be entertained and fulfilled by it are quite similar. The media they choose -- and the artists they appreciate -- are simply different from the ones that inspire her. She can appreciate the fact that all human beings possess desire, though we desire different things, ultimately. Because Giovanni gets this fundamental tenet of human life, she has become one of the most effective and important human rights advocates of our time.

On the surface, Mauricia Grant represents the kind of diversity and lack of prejudice that we are always inspired by when it occurs in corporate America. Surely, a black woman probably seems out of place on a NASCAR track. However, Grant pursued her desire to work in the white male-dominated industry of NASCAR as a certification expert, loved her work, and was rated positively in her reviews perennially. So it would probably come as a surprise to many that she was terminated in 2007 for “conduct unbecoming of a NASCAR official,” and for using “street language,” when she had never so much had been warned or reprimanded previously. But to Grant, the writing, much like an errant NASCAR driver, was on the wall. Only the fallout from her case would be more destructive, fierier, and take much more than the customary warning lap to clear up the debris.

Grant is suing NASCAR for $250 million, citing wrongful termination and a history of sexual harassment and racial discrimination during her tenure with them. Much more than sour grapes, Grant alleges that she has filed complaints over the years on several occasions when co-workers and supervisors sexually harassed her, made ignorant racist comments in her presence, and occasionally, intersected the two. Her nickname was “Nappy Headed Mo.” Her supervisors exposed themselves in front of her. And when she denied their sexual advances, they alleged she was gay. She was assigned to work more hours in the sun because, unlike her white co-workers, she wouldn’t sunburn. And on and on. Until she complained and was eventually terminated.

This story has exposed the underbelly of the sport that so many of Giovanni’s students love. What this story has shown us is that NASCAR administrators are plagued by a lack of the self-actualization that we must possess to advance human life as we know it. NASCAR, in this instance, has certainly not done anything to gain market share among women, people of color, and pursuers of social justice with their disdainful treatment and institutionalized racism and sexism inherent in their dealings with Grant. Evidently, NASCAR believes that it can advance the sport and increase market share by drawing in more fans from diverse backgrounds the same way the PGA has with Tiger Woods (who was called a watermelon and fried chicken eater by a fellow PGA member, and a commentator recently called for fellow players to “lynch” him). The same way that the WTA has with the Williams sisters (who are consistently labeled as aloof and unfocused by sport media, who are remarkably unwilling to address the racially provoked boos of spiteful fans every time they win at Wimbledon). The same way that the media continues to sanction the vitriol of Don Imus, who continues to assault civil sensibility on air without any retribution.

Sport culturists, or people who believe that athletic competition carries with it great possibilities for multicultural collaboration and provides great examples of human triumph in an often inhumane world, know that sport that has provided us with some of the most important moments in social progress and racial uplift in American history. NASCAR, as have other professional sports organizations in the past, has failed to live up to its potential in this regard. What’s important now is that NASCAR deals with this situation with sensitivity, and more importantly, with a commitment to justice and ensuring that no employee is ever subjected to the wrongs Ms. Grant alleges she was subjected to.

If NASCAR does handle this situation properly, perhaps I may consider changing my mind about the sport, which I now find disdainful in addition to being unentertaining. I hope I change my mind, re-affirming sports great power to heal us, and, erstwhile, confirming one of Nikki Giovanni’s most famous poetic lines:

“I am so hip, even my errors are correct.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am not sure I can agree with a sports ability to heal! A sport is filled with many different medias. U have a coaching staff, administration staff, broadcasters and so on. I believe an action with the intent of bettering oneself can be healing but to say "a sport can be healing," I believe is wrong. A sport is a trial. It has opportunity, pit falls and celebrations, all distributed unevenly! We don't fall in love with the sport. We fall in love with the action. Dribbling the ball, a perfect feeling from shoulder to finger tips. It is the action that calls us back day after day. Not the sport.

But then this all depends on your definition of sport. An if I understood the NASCAR article properly, I do indeed disagree with u.