I think I ought to explain, as promised, why I am in New York. The first thing to mention is that I wrote the previous post in this miniseries (it was written on a flight to Dublin, and finally posted when I returned) before I knew about any of what I’m about to tell you, so it is rather funny to me…
The week that I returned from Dublin I noticed a phone message from an editor of a magazine asking me to return their call. A couple of days later I learned what it was about. It’s a magazine that largely focuses on buzz about people and projects in the entertainment and fashion industry – Music (R&B, Hip Hop mostly), Movies and TV, etc., as far as I can tell, along with some coverage of parts of the business world. Its readership is mostly younger African American males, I think. As far as I can tell, the intention is not to be about those things in particular, but it is largely reflecting the interests of the readership it is targeted at. It’s a major product, jumping out at you immediately when you are in the magazine store (the striking picture of a woman on the front helps it grab your attention, of course).
Each year, the magazine does a special issue featuring a group of individuals who are doing “major things” in the industries I mentioned above. It is a combination of a focus on new talent that’s about to become more widely known, or just bringing to readers’ attention the existence of some of the people who are making significant impact in what they’re doing.
Somehow – I do not know how – they got my name. It turns out that they spent some time reading some of things I’ve written here at Asymptotia too. Now normally, you’d expect things to stop at that point, but in fact it did not. They decided to broaden things out a bit and include me (if I was willing) in this year’s feature issue.
I thought about it for a day. It is quite an honour to be approached, and I’m also impressed that the magazine’s editors are being creative in this way (it would be easy for them to keep their focus on their comfort zone and not at all worry about activity in the small corner of academia. I hope that they continue to do this, and broaden things out to include individuals in other careers in academia too, as well as other careers in which minority representation is low). It’s also very flattering to me personally, of course, but if I followed every bit of flattery sent my way, I’d be a very unfocused individual, so I needed to think about what I wanted to do. Was this really something I wanted to do? Was it a good investment of my time – would it serve some purpose other than just being an appearance in a glossy magazine? I wanted to ponder questions such as these for a little while.
In the end, I decided that this would be a really great thing to be involved with – the primary reason being the readership, and the point of the feature itself. Reading through this blog you’ll find several posts (and links to ones I’ve done on CV, see this post and the links within, for example here) in which I express the opinion that one of the things most seriously affecting the representation of minorities in academia (especially science) -and hence slowing our ability to take control of our roles and futures in our communities and within society at large- is the lack of knowledge within the community about those career options. Our society largely focuses on black people doing things in entertainment, sports and athletics (and there’s nothing wrong with choosing to have a career in those fields), but there’s very little about the many other careers we can and should be doing as well. So these are the prevailing images that are in the movies, on tv, and in the magazines and other media. There are some images and mentions of black people being lawyers, businesspeople, writers and doctors to some extent too, but these are presented in a somewhat more low key manner, and they’re certainly not cast as being nearly as desirable as the entertainment-type careers (often they are regarded as nothing more than backup -“just in case”- options), and the coverage of those sorts of options is really not as deep or penetrating as it could be. By time you come to black scientists… Well, let me just say that I’ve never seen a black scientist of any sort featured in any major magazine aimed at a black readership. This does not mean that it has not happened (surely someone has done something on someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson? – he’s presenting a PBS science show now) but the fact that I can’t think of any is significant in itself. So from that perspective, there’s no way I would not try to get involved with this, even though it mean flying out to New York midweek at a week’s notice.
In some ways, this is a natural next step beyond what I did last year when I did that “sermon” in a black church in South Los Angeles. (See here and here, and I’ve a follow-up post on that coming soon, I hope)… the magazine appearance can help extend the reach quite a bit more, and quite a bit deeper into the community.
All I want is for more people (young people still making their way into careers, or friends of parents of such young people, and so forth) to learn that there are black people doing science – what we do, why we do it, how we do it, and what it can do for them. I want them to know that being a scientist is real thing that can happen in their real world, and not some make believe world. So given that they read this magazine and others like it in huge numbers, if I can find a day or two of time to take part in a feature on me as a scientist, this is a good thing. If if helps just one person decide to try to become a scientist, it will be more than worth it. And who knows what cascade of thoughts and actions such an article might produce? It is too good a chance to pass up.
So a week after posting a tongue in cheek article about that “other world” of glossy entertainment magazines, I found myself all tarted-up and about to appear on the pages of one… It’s a funny old world.
What the magazine actually does is this. They bring all of the people they are featuring together for one shoot. They pick a theme and a venue and shoot photos and video for several hours. So, the venue? The nightclub called the Marquee, in Manhattan. The theme? Casino Royale. No, really. So this explains the earlier reference to the Tuxedo (dinner suit, for you in the UK), I hope.
Thursday morning I woke up and spent an awful lot of time (let’s not go into it) in my hotel room grooming and getting myself ready for the shoot – the tuxedo, the hair, the cuff-links, the bow-tie, the shoes – the works… basically turning myself into a James Bond-style secret agent. Then, somewhat later than requested on the call sheet they’d sent out, I dashed downstairs and jumped into a taxi to the venue. Given that I was dressed for the part, I wanted to yell “follow that cab”, and point randomly at another taxi pulling away from the curb, but sadly, there was no time for it. Instead I just asked the taxi driver to take me to 289 10th Avenue, although I did add “as quick as you can please”, (perhaps I should have said “and step on it!”).
Upon arriving, I found that although I was half an hour late, I was in fact one of the two or three earliest people. Somehow I turned out to be one of the few who followed the instructions literally so as to arrive all dressed and ready to be photographed. For whatever reason, the others came to get dressed there, and there did not seem to be a lot of room, so there there were people sitting around waiting for others to finish dressing, and there were people using steamers to prepare suits, and there was even a person cutting someone’s hair over in one corner. So I wandered around and looked at everything, including the sight of some of the fancier people’s personal entourage fussing around them helping them get ready, brushing fluff off their suits, touching up their lips with gloss, etc. (Hmmm, I forgot to bring my entourage…. Wait. Never mind, I don’t have one.) The range of dress styles was interesting. Different sorts of suits, from the style I wore to fancy large pin-stripes. And there was an awful lot of diamond-encrusted stuff on these guys. A remarkable amount, competing in some cases with the model who was brought along to show off a new jewelry line of one of the featured designers. (Hmmmm, did I forget to bring my diamonds? No – I don’t own anything with diamonds on it, as far as I’m aware!)
The Marquee is a really fun-looking space (see some of the photos I’ve been sprinkling throughout the post). I shall have to go there one night when it is in full club mode. They’d hired a catering company to have staff wander around with tasty tidbits of food interestingly presented – an awful lot of things (from fruit to meat) served skewered on long-stemmed red roses, for example – and later they had drinks of various sorts (watered down martinis and the like) served by extraordinarily tall young women wearing extraordinarily high heels (they sometimes had to actually bend down to serve some of the drinks perched on their trays). So there was no shortage of refreshment.
Eventually, I began to run into and talk to some of the other people on the shoot (uh, the “talent” would be the appropriate insider term to use here.), and had a lot of interesting conversations. (This is part of the point of what they want to do with these events too… give the people they brought together a chance to network). As you may have noticed, I’ve not mentioned which magazine it is, and I’m also not going to mention the people who were there either. I promised the magazine’s editors that I would hold off on that until after the issue appears, since they like to announce their list with a big splash, you see, and I do not want to steal their thunder. Needless to say, there were actors, singers, music producers, etc. You’ll have heard of some of them (depending upon how close to the pop-culture ground you keep your ear) and you will – I am quite sure – hear of others very soon. Some are already on your tv screens, radio stations, and ipods, and others will be soon. There were also some designers (fashion: clothes, shoes, and accessories), and not all just with the more standard urban, sport, or street references you might expect – there was a broader scope. There were some people running businesses of other sorts too – in fact, tonight I might well check out the restaurant owned by one of the people I met.
Ah, yes, Casino Royale. This meant more than just standing around in a tuxedo (dinner suit, to you in the uk). They hired a company to set up some tables to play roulette, craps, and blackjack, with professional staff to run each station (card dealer, and whatever you call the person who has the little stick that moves the chips around, or spins the wheel, or moves the dice around, etc.). They gave us stacks of chips to play with and we just… played. And we hopefully looked reasonably good while doing it, which was the point of the exercise. Not having played any of these games before, I discovered that I did rather well at both roulette and especially blackjack. Who knew? You can see one of my winning hands in the photo to the left.
At the end of the five hour shoot (yes, five hours) we were asked to make signatures or other marks on a large canvas using a marker pen. They use it as a means of commemorating the event, and it was next to two of them from past events where you can see the handiwork of various people from the “class of ’06” and the “class of ’05”. The people ahead of me had already scribbled fancy things and little drawings and even their website addresses…. so i had to think fast. I figured my signature would be too boring, and that trumpet symbol some of you know that I usually do would be too confusing and irrelevant….I thought it would be best to have a little bit of something representing what I do, and so a nice short, cute equation that would not take up too much room would be best. E=mc2 is just way too obvious, and so what did I come up with? Yes, you guessed it1, I wrote: eiÏ€ + 1 = 0.
The session thus over, I stepped outside into the bright sunshine, watched a few of the huge black shiny SUVs pull up to pick up some of the others in the feature, and then pulled my scarf and coat around me more tightly and leaned into the wind while I trudged off to the subway station.
- Yes, I know, but I was a fan of it since probably before he was eating solid food.