8 Ways OJ Simpson’s Story Makes Me Think

I’m often told by people who have read my fiction, that it made them “think.”  I was hoping to make them “feel,” but it’s OK. I see how they get there.  The fact is, when I write I do see it as a vehicle to comment on society.  I think about what it all means constantly, and I guess that comes out in my writing.

Given all that, it’s probably not surprising that I am fascinated by stories that reveal something meaningful about society as a whole.

Like the story of OJ Simpson.

(I don’t think I need to say this, but OJ was a famous football player turned actor/mogul.  In the 1990s, his ex wife, Nicole, and her friend turned up dead—brutally murdered—and OJ was the main suspect.  The nation watched every second of the trial.  He was acquitted.)

I watched “The People v. OJ Simpson,” a fictionalized mini-series about OJ (incredible!) and now I’m catching up on the ESPN documentary “Made in America,” also about OJ. OJ’s story can be interpreted as a commentary on everything from racial politics to domestic violence to sports.  No matter how you consume his story, it definitely makes you think.

made in america

Courtesy of ESPN.go.com

The OJ Simpson story makes you think about:

Sports

We f-ing worship athletes.  Schools worship football programs.  That helped make OJ feel entitled.  It also made him feel non-black, as he claimed sports was the one area where were people in the 1960s could be judged by their abilities rather than their color.

Los Angeles

In a lot of ways, “Made in America” is a story about Los Angeles.  OJ wasn’t just an athlete, he was a movie star.  The police loved him and so did everyone else—so much so that they let him beat his wife.  Meanwhile, people barely cared about poor Ron Goldman, killed the same night as Nicole Simpson, why? Because he wasn’t famous.

Glitz and glamour also made its way into the court room during OJ’s murder trial—while the prosecutor Marcia Clark acted like a lawyer, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran knew to put on a show for the cameras.  Guess who won?

Of course, the outcome of OJ’s trial was also heavily influence by the racial tensions in Los Angeles. I knew about Rodney King, but I didn’t know about Latasha Harlins (a teenage girl shot in the head by a cashier on camera yet never received justice because the cashier did not get any jail time) and the Dalton Ave raid (where the police raided people’s homes searching for drugs, leaving the houses looking like they had been hit by a tornadoes).   Together, these events brought LA to a boiling point.

USC football, the history of the LAPD, the great migration of southern blacks to LA and more—all this LA history comes out in the telling of OJ’s life.

Racial politics

Racial politics was huge during the trial, but they came into play way before then.  At the height of his fame, OJ made it clear that he did not want to be viewed as black, but rather as an individual.  Just OJ.  He rose to fame in 1968, which happens to be the year Martin Luther King was killed and two black American medalists raised black-gloved fists on the podium during the Summer Olympics.  Muhammad Ali and plenty of other athletes were using their platform to speak out against racial injustices.  OJ wanted nothing to do with it.  His goal was to assimilate into a white world, and arguably he did (for a while).

When most people think  of OJ and racial politics, however, they think about the trial.  The defense’s entire strategy was to use the tensions between blacks and the LAPD to make it plausible to the jury that the police set OJ up.  It worked, because that was plausible.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, the country was severely divided.  Most of black America wanted OJ to be not guilty.  Most of white America wanted him to be found guilty.  This divide had nothing to do with the merits of the case and everything to do with racial politics.  Decade upon decade white people were able to attack, murder, and assault black life and get away with it (see section 2).  A lot of black America saw a poetic justice in OJ’s acquittal.

The justice/legal system

It failed everyone.  Nicole Simpson, Ron Goldman, Rodney King, Latasha Harlins, blacks in LA, everyone.

Domestic violence

When I say the system failed Nicole Simpson, it really did.  She called the police on OJ at least 8 times.  Unfortunately, OJ’s stature was more important than the fact that he was beating his wife.  Nicole literally said “he’s going to kill me.”  Still, she had to die before the police would even put him in jail.

Gender politics

This is what I loved most about the fictionalized version of the trial—Marcia Clark, played by Sarah Paulson.  The People v. OJ did a good job depicting the sexism she endured.  The judge, for example, would call her Marcia and Cochran “Mr. Cochran” or counselor.  The media scrutinized her hair, her clothes, her commitment to her children and her relationships.  Marcia Clark’s abilities, and by consequence the evidence against OJ, were severely devalued because of her sex.

people v. oj

Courtesy of fxnetworks.com

LGBT issues

OJ’s father was gay.  It was something he didn’t talk about, and was clearly ashamed of.  He lashed out when he saw Nicole hanging out with gay people.  How much did this unnecessary shame contribute to his anger?

OJ

I see so much captured by the telling of OJ’s story, and yet I still wonder about him as a person—as a character.  The fact is that most of the images of OJ are rather nonthreatening and pleasant.  He mastered that public persona.  The only time we really experience the other side of him with our own eyes (or ears) is during the 911 calls Nicole makes to police.  Even today as OJ talks from his jail cell, he comes across as calm, accommodating.

So, again, I wonder- what made him snap? Was it years of smiling in the face of white people in the midst of the civil rights movement?  Was it pent up rage at his father?  Jealousy?  Getting old and losing relevance?  Where did the murderous side of this ambitious, dying to please person come from?

 

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DC Writers Conference: Pitching Agents; Getting A Peek Into the Publishing World

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Washington Writers Conference. Usually I’m excited about the panels and workshops, etc., but the purpose of this visit was strictly business—meeting agents. By signing up for the conference you got 5 minutes to pitch 4 agents of your choosing. It was a solid selection. I decided to only meet with people I hadn’t already sent queries to.

The pitches

The conference came after my last post, in which I wrote that the idea of networking for this book was an annoying concept. Given that that’s how I was feeling at the time, I didn’t go to the cocktail party in Bethesda the Friday before the conference to mingle with agents and publishers—including a few I pitched. I should have gone, but I didn’t.

Saturday, I attended a few panels, during which the pitch sessions were scheduled. Two of the agents I sat with made me feel stupid for even being there (was it me, or was it the fact that they had been sitting in a 90 degree room all day?) One asked me for 75 pages (yes!) and the last asked me if my book was “like a Nicholas Sparks novel but with black characters.”

Blink.

If you follow this blog, then you have an idea of how my face reacted, outside of my control, to that question. I recovered though, and she asked for three chapters.

Nevertheless, I was feeling a little deflated at the end, like I hadn’t really made the most of the day. But then this guy who works at a tiny publisher approached me. I think his company has an interest in minority authors. Anyway, he said they do everything traditional publishers do- edit, market, etc. and you don’t need an agent to pitch them.

I did some investigating, and I learned that there are other ways to getting published besides querying millions of agents and then hoping to find a publisher. Apparently there is a whole army of tiny presses like his (e.g., university presses) that target niche audiences that you can pitch without an agent. Once I look into it further, I will probably blog about it in greater depth. For now, I’ll just let you know that I sent him my full manuscript.

The conference: a reminder that I’m a black woman

This is the first writing conference I attended that wasn’t 90% women. I hadn’t really thought about that when I signed up, but the differences were apparent immediately.

While most of the agents were women, all of the panelists on the publisher panel were men. The keynote speaker was a sportswriter for a major newspaper who mentioned at least dozen of writers and athletes who influenced him—all of them were men.  Meanwhile, the lady sitting next to me was there to pitch a biography about a woman and trees. One of the few male agents expressed some interest and she was surprised that a man was interested in that topic.  His response was “my sister is a women’s studies professor” (or something along those lines).

What I learned from that story is that if a man doesn’t have a sister who is a women’s studies professor, he won’t read a biography about a woman. For real though- is that what the agent was saying?

One of the panels was about gender and biography, which I enjoyed. The panelists included famous unauthorized biographer Kitty Kelley and James McGrath Morris– a white man who just published a biography about a black, female civil rights reporter named Edith L. Payne.

I really respected James’ comments about his position being a white man writing about Edith.  He seemed like he got a lot of what I talk about on this blog.  He mentioned that during his time in the industry he observed that when black women write about black women, for example, they are generally perceived as more biased or sympathetic to the subject (he used a different word—I wish I could remember—but that was jist).  Juxtapose those comments with Kitty Kelley’s discussion of her experience writing about Frank Sinatra, for which she got a lot of backlash. (Sinatra even tried to sue her before she had written a word! Thankfully that’s illegal.) She said that because Sinatra is perceived as the pinnacle of manliness, it was in fact men who had trouble writing about him objectively. They had too much reverence for him, while she could write about him (and his flaws) more honestly.

So basically, everyone’s biased. That actually is what I think—there’s always going to be some subjectivity. But what this panel demonstrated was that, while the idea that black women can’t write about other black women objectively is the majority view, Kitty’s perspective that white men can’t write about a white man objectively is the minority view. In other words, when white men write a biography that is the standard/baseline. When anyone else writes, however, they inevitably insert their biased female/minority perspectives into the page…right?

To be fair, I’ll leave you with this…

To wrap up this post about networking and gender/race issues in the publishing industry, I leave with this: at the conference I ran into numerous friends that I met in classes I took at the Writer’s Center (where this journey all began).  One, a white woman, told me she had pitched her story (elsewhere, not at this conference) to a black agent who she really connected with. She could tell the agent was interested in her work, but she couldn’t represent her- because she only represents black authors.

I think that’s a bad business move for the agent (and not just because I believe in my friend). I understand the thinking- it is historically more difficult for minority authors to find representation. Still, it’s never a good idea to turn down a good opportunity. If this agent believed in my friend’s book, she should have pursued it. Not only is that her job, but if the book became successful, then she would have more leverage when representing her other, mostly African American, clients. That’s my view, but I can see others disagreeing. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Tis all.  Have a great weekend!

What It’s Like to Write for One of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers (Not this One)

Did you know I write for another blog?

Yup.  It all started a year or so ago.  I was following a bunch of writing blogs, and one day The Write Practice put out a call for regular contributors. I applied and got it! This week I learned that it was named one of Write to Done’s 2015 top 10 blogs for writers! Woohoo!

I would like to say this accomplishment is because of me (heh, heh), buuut I actually first discovered The Write Practice because it won the same honor in 2012 (or 2013?). Still, it feels pretty good to know that I at the very least have not brought it down.

Anyway, the experience has been cool. It’s made me a part of a solid virtual writing community. Joe Bunting (the founder and manager of the blog and basically my boss) gives me blogging tips, writing encouragement and Starbucks cards! And because each post includes a writing prompt, our readers are actually really involved. They take 15 minutes to write a scene or two and post them right in the comments.  It’s awesome to see!

One of my favorite posts is when I asked readers to write a scene from the point of view of an animal. The attempts were so funny!! I even took a stab at it myself.

Generally, however, I try to write posts that coincide with what I dealing with a writer.  So, for example, if I’m struggling with my POV, I’ll write a post about POVs.

I also try to reference writers of color and female authors as much as possible. It’s like Chris Rock said (more or less)-  sure, minority/female writers aren’t the only ones who need attention, but the chances are much less likely that they are getting it already. It’s just harder out here when you’re not a white dude (just click around my blog to learn why).  To the extent I can help, I’m like—why not?

The post (written by me) that got the most comments was when I asked readers to describe this Italian painting and then compare it to Zadie Smith’s description. Zadie Smith isn’t my favorite author, but my goodness that woman knows how to draw an image with her words. I felt really inspired by her skills, and it was cool to see others were as well. I’ve also written posts inspired by everyone from Walter Mosley to Uzo Iweala to a Washington Post Press Pass mentee.

Anyway, The Write Practice has more than 200,000 subscribers and accepts posts from guest bloggers all the time. If you’re interested, I encourage you to submit one for consideration!!

Holllerrr