The Monster Mash: 3 Interesting Facts About the Halloween Classic

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The Monster Mash. It was a graveyard smash.

Monster Mash was released in 1962. Written by Bobby Pickett and Leonard Capizzi and recorded by Pickett and “the Crypt-Kickers.,” the single hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart from October 20-27, 1962 and has been a Halloween favorite ever since. Here are a few fun facts about this Halloween classic.

  1. The song features Pickett doing an impression of Boris Karloff, a famed horror movie actor. He also does a Dracula impression for one line in the song.
  2. The song was inspired by and danced to the Mashed Potato dance craze of the era. Monster Mash was danced like the Mashed Potato except with Frankenstein monster arm and hand movements.
  3. Interestingly the sound effects in the song were very low budget. The coffin sound was created by removing a nail from a piece of wood; the cauldron bubbling was simply a straw bubbling water; and the chains rattling were just chains being dropped on a tile floor.

The song tells a story loosely similar to Frankenstein but with a fun, dance twist. A mad scientist’s monster comes to life and performs a new dance which became very popular and led to a party with other monsters.

Below is the video from Bobby Pickett performing the song on American Bandstand October 13, 1964.

“I Put a Spell on You:” From Radio Ban to Disney Movie Favorite

The origins of a popular song that has become a Halloween Disney movie favorite? A drunken recording session, a blues singer with an amazing voice, a breakup, and a spooky production.

A song many know because of its numerous cover versions, “I Put a Spell on You” is now included on Halloween playlists, owing partly to its inclusion in the movie Hocus Pocus. However, even before its more overt connection to the Halloween holiday, the song was thought of as shocking, demented, and dark, but not solely for the lyrics which suggest witchcraft or voodoo. Originally written and performed  by Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins,”I Put a Spell on You” was released in 1956 and is the song that earned Jalacy the “Screamin’ Jay” nickname. It was Hawkins’ screaming delivery of the song and his resulting performance style that really gave the song its powerful yet outrageous and slightly sinister tone. The song transformed Hawkins’ career and he became the pioneer of the subgenre of “shock rock,” a genre later popularized by artists including Alice Cooper, KISS, Ozzy Osborne, and Marilyn Manson.

“I Put a Spell on You” was not originally intended to be associated with Halloween at all. It was Hawkins’ delivery of the song in the 1956 recording and the resulting live performances that would change everything for the song and for Hawkins. Hawkins, who had operatic dreams, but was working as a traditional blues singer, originally wrote the song as a traditional blues love ballad with lyrics about getting a lover back after a breakup, influenced by his own personal life. He recorded it as such in 1955 but the track didn’t go anywhere. However, the story goes that a year later when he decided to try rerecording it, the producer brought in food and large quantities of alcohol to the recording session and got everyone drunk resulting in the most well-known version of the song.

However, the resulting version of the song also got it banned from radio. In 1956, Hawkins’ singing, screaming, and grunting, complete with animal noises, sounded overtly sexual to mainstream audiences. The fact that Hawkins was African American likely contributed to this take on the song. Even a toned down version wasn’t played on most radio stations. Despite the radio ban, the song was Hawkins’ most commercially successful one, though it never made the top charts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hawkins’ live performances of the song did little to allay the concerns of many groups. He took to appearing on stage in a coffin, rising out dressed in a “screaming wardrobe”  including zebra stripes, bright colors, sometimes a loin cloth, with a spear or a skull on a stick that would sometimes smoke his cigarette while he sang, and with tusks in his nose and a turban on his head.

The NAACP denounced his act with concerns that he was propagating stereotypes of African Americans as cannibals or witch doctors. Some African American newspapers and magazines ignored Hawkins, not wanting to promote his music. The song was released in the era of Jim Crow and segregation and understandably there were concerns about the act being consumed by white audiences for which it upheld dangerous and negative images of black people.

Despite all of this, the song was Hawkins’ biggest hit, with Hawkins being featured in DJ Alan Freed’s Rock and Roll Revue and has gone on to be covered by numerous artists. Some of the most well-received covers include those of Nina Simone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Marilyn Manson, Bette Midler (in Hocus Pocus), and Annie Lennox, but there have been many more.

Nina Simone’s cover was especially well done with the song taking on a whole new meaning when sung with her amazing voice. Simone slowed the track down more to the ballad tempo it was originally meant to be, but with powerhouse vocals and jazz style scatting. The track became so much a part of Simone’s body of work that she titled her autobiography “I Put a Spell on You.”

Bette Midler’s rendition in Hocus Pocus has become particularly popular at Halloween owing to the movie’s rising popularity as a cult classic. It seems to be more popular as it ages with references to it on signs, t-shirts, and more as Halloween approaches. Midler as Winifred Sanderson changes many of the lyrics to fit the spell she was casting while singing but hers is one of the more well known uses of the song, though it has appeared in several other movies and in commercials.

Jalacy Hawkins’ song had a long life after him as artists continue to cover it. However, the song and its influence on his stage persona changed his career trajectory so much that he had difficulty getting other records taken seriously and many shied away from playing his records because of fear of associating with him, even when records were more traditional. He didn’t really benefit financially from the song despite the fact that many covers of it happened in his lifetime.

Read more about Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins, who had an interesting life with a difficult childhood, served in the armed forces, and had a relatively successful boxing career, all before the release of “I Put a Spell on You.” Links to further reading below.

Links:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WPcap/2000-02/15/004r-021500-idx.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/2000/02/13/blues-musician-screamin-jay-hawkins-70/73db046b-1556-46aa-b2c5-bb571d94c577/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f7901799d72b

These first two links are obituaries for Jay Hawkins.

https://www.biography.com/news/screamin-jay-hawkins-i-put-a-spell-on-you-biography

Biography of Jay Hawkins.

The Curious History of “I Put a Spell On You”

This is an especially interesting article that follows the trajectory of the song over time and speaks to the likelihood that Hawkins’ version was unsuccessful because of racial biases of the time, while later white performers’ versions of the song were more commercially successful and bigger hits on radio charts. It also suggests that Hawkins’ performance style confronted white audiences’ desire to appropriate black music while society still maintained segregation and oppression of African Americans.

National Museum of African American History & Culture: A Rave Review

The National Museum of African American History & Culture is one of those museums that pulls you in and keeps pulling you in. From the outside, it stands out, strikingly different from all of the other museums, monuments, and buildings on the National Mall, creating a welcome visual focal point. Entering feels like going into a sacred space. The museum is chock full of artifacts that bring stories to life. It was one of my favorite museum experiences ever (and I’ve had a lot). Many have written about why this museum is important and how it came to be. Below is my experience visiting the museum as a white museum professional. It did not disappoint on a professional or personal level and all of its hype is well deserved.

Note on Tickets & Logistics

When my husband and I began planning our trip to DC to visit my brother, one of the first things decided on (after the concert that sparked the conversation) was that I had to go to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The NMAAHC opened in 2016 to lots of interest, high visitation, and big impact on not only the world of public history & museums, but on so many individuals. I had heard so much good buzz about the museum but hadn’t been able to visit yet so it was high priority on our list.

We knew advance tickets would probably be necessary and we planned to go on the Friday of our trip to help cut down on weekend crowding, but I misunderstood the ticket release system and we missed our opportunity to get advance tickets! 😦 The other option was to try and get day of tickets first thing in the morning when they would be released for the day, but after arriving in DC in the wee hours of the morning we missed that opportunity as well. Walk-ins (without advance tickets) are allowed after 1 pm.

Worried that we would be standing in long lines and concerned about the chances of maybe not being able to get in at all, we decided to spend the morning at the National Air & Space Museum (you can read about our visit here) and then go to the NMAAHC after lunch (we ate in the Pavilion Cafe in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden which you can read about here). Because of hiding out from rain and how busy the Pavilion Cafe was we didn’t get to the NMAAHC until about 2:00pm on a Friday in April. There was absolutely no line and we were able to go right in and get started. The museum was plenty busy but not overcrowded and we were able to maneuver through exhibits with minimal waiting and crowding. The NMAAHC has changed its ticketing policy already in its 3 years and likely will continue to adjust so if you plan to go, check out their website for the latest. We lucked out on being able to easily get in without waiting, but I would still recommend the advance ticketing system so you can get in in the morning and have more time to view the museum. I have to go back as we only grazed the surface of this museum’s impressive exhibits!

The Museum

Upon entering, we picked up a map which advised that in order to make the most of your time (and we were already limited on time having gotten there in the afternoon) you should start at the top and work your way down. We didn’t realize until later that this meant we would miss the museum’s main history exhibits which traces African American history from slavery through the present. These history exhibits are all below ground (where 60% of the museum lies). Where we began was with the museum’s culture exhibits which all come off of a central area called Cultural Expressions. This circular area is so immersive with exhibits around the outside, seating in the middle, and large screens encircling above head with images, video and quotes about various forms of cultural expression including writing, music, dance, sport, film, etc. featuring famous or trailblazing African Americans in their respective fields. We began with the exhibit about music.

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The music exhibit was full of information and artifacts about African American musicians and singers who have made lasting cultural impressions in American popular and musical culture. Jimi Hendrix, Ella Fitzgerald, Celia Cruz, Whitney Houston, James Brown, Louis Armstrong, and more well-known artists were represented, but so were lesser-known names and contributions to American music including black country and bluegrass artists. The exhibit included an interactive “record store” room in which you could flip through “albums” and learn more about artists and select music on a digital touch screen. It was a rich visual experience with so much to take in.

The next exhibit was all about acting, from the stage to the screen. The final exhibit we toured in full was about sports. All of these exhibits showcased the cultural contributions of African Americans to American culture, highlighting inequalities overcome, civil rights advanced, and culture enriched. Black history and culture is American history and culture and these exhibits make that clear by focusing on how African Americans have been a part of it all by focusing on these overarching categories of music, film, sport, relatable categories for people of all backgrounds. 

I wish we could have stayed longer but tired brains and feet won out. We skipped the rest of the regular exhibits in favor of checking out the educational area which has a large digital, interactive kiosk of touch screens from which you can browse the museum’s collection. You can select items based on a wide variety of intersectional topics. This was a truly impressive digital resource that had information on so many artifacts both on exhibit and not.

I can’t wait to return to this museum and tour more of the exhibits. The importance of this museum for celebrating African American history and culture, for educating the public on the history of systemic racism, for educating the public on the history of black Americans, and for showcasing the important role African Americans have and continue to play in the development of culture in America cannot be overstated. I highly recommend visiting, taking your time, and taking it all in.

#PlayLikeAGirl: 5 Pioneering Female Drummers

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The US National Archives’ #19forthe19th Instagram Challenge is highlighting women’s history for 19 weeks in celebration of the centennial of the 19th amendment which gave women the right to vote.

This week’s theme? #PlayLikeAGirl

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I decided to take a look at pioneering female musicians who play instruments specifically female drummers, who continue to remain a minority in the music world.

Here are 5 pioneering female drummers:

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Karen Carpenter was part of the duo, the Carpenters, with her brother Richard. The sibling duo wrote and performed soft rock/pop from 1969-1983. Karen started drumming in high school and quickly learned more and more complex skills. She played as part of a trio with her brother, the Richard Carpenter trio, for a while, while simultaneously developing her singing voice. It was Karen’s singing that originally caught the ear of a label who signed her and brought Richard along to compose music. The two performed in a number of different band iterations until they finally, formally became the duo, the Carpenters. Karen soon eclipsed her brother and became the face of the band, moving out from behind the drum kit in live performances to sing with another drummer stepping in. She always considered herself a drummer first and singer second though. Sadly, Karen suffered from anorexia nervosa at a time when it was less understood. She passed away at the age of 32 because of complications and strain on her heart from the disease.

 

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Bobbye Hall is a noted and prolific percussionist playing bongos, congas, and other percussion as well as full drum kits. She has recorded and performed with many leading artists and got her start by playing on Motown recordings. She was a session musician at a time when that field was dominated by men. She has recorded and played with a wide variety of artists including The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Janis Joplin, the Doobie Brothers, the Mamas and the Papas, and Tracy Chapman. She went on a world tour with Bob Dylan in 1978 which brought her global exposure.

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Sandy West was the drummer for the first all-girl teenage hard rock band, the Runaways, with Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Lita Ford, and Micki Steele (original lineup), from 1975-1979. Sandy started playing drums when she was 9 years old and as a teenage was the only girl playing in local bands at parties. Sandy sought out opportunities to play professionally which led her to Joan Jett and the Runaways. After they disbanded though she struggled to find success in the music industry.

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Sheila E. (Escovedo) is another prolific and talented percussionist. She got her start drumming and singing in the George Duke Band but went on to have a very successful solo career and to collaborate with some of the biggest names in music, namely Prince. She recorded on several tracks on Purple Rain. She has also performed or collaborated with Beyonce, Pharell, Marc Anthony, and Juan Luis Guerra. She regularly performs with other musicians in her family, including her father who was also a percussionist. Fun fact: the Latin jazz legend Tito Puente was Sheila’s godfather.

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Suzette Quintanilla is the often overlooked sister of Selena Quintanilla Perez, the young Tejano superstar who died tragically at the age of 23. Suzette played drums in their family’s band, Selena y los Dinos, which Selena fronted. Suzette was originally reluctant to play the drums as she felt as a young girl that it was not an instrument usually played by girls. She was in fact one of very few female drummers, especially in Tejano music, which was dominated by men in most respects. There were some female Tejano singers but few musicians in the bands. Despite her reluctance, she played, and Selena y los Dinos rose to fame before Selena embarked on a solo career. Suzette still performs sometimes with her brother AB Quintanilla.

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District Sights: National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden

On the hunt for a convenient, quick, and close-by lunch spot between our visits to the National Air & Space Museum and the National Museum of African American History & Culture, we wandered into the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden on our way to the Pavilion Cafe. With bad weather looming, we made our way around the fountain, lingered just a bit at a few of the statues and went inside just in time. It started raining while we were in line to order.

 

In our quick visit though I took a few photos and have since done some research on one of the artist’s whose work in the sculpture garden stood out to me. Titled Puellae (Girls), the collection of bronze, headless figurines standing amidst trees, was haunting. In search of the meaning behind these figures I quickly Googled but the first page that came up offered nothing beyond the fact that the figures were bronze, made in 1982, and were indeed at the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden (thanks Google/Wikipedia). A friendly security guard passed by just as I declared my internet search of no use and told us that the statues were inspired by a story the artist had heard during World War II of a transport of girls from Poland to Germany who all died from exposure to the cold in the cattle cars used to move them.

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The artist is Magdalena Abakanowicz who grew up in Poland. She was 9 years old when Nazi Germany invaded and she grew up outside of Warsaw, and after the war, lived under Soviet control. She went to art school and began her career in a the climate of Soviet rigid conservatism. Artists were only allowed to create art in one style–Socialist realism. As she moved through her career as an artist those restrictions were lifted. Abakanowicz is known for working with textiles and for several humanoid sculptures like those at the National Portrait Gallery. Drawing on her experience of World War II and its aftermath, she is “best known for her “crowds” (as she calls them) of headless, rigidly posed figures whose anonymity and multiplicity have been regarded as the artist’s personal response to totalitarianism.” (National Gallery of Art website)

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I am not personally terribly interested or good at art. I often don’t “get” it. But when art is used to represent history or the past, I am better able to understand. I wish this sort of background information was included on art gallery labels, but I suppose sometimes the art is meant to speak for itself and be open to interpretation. I prefer knowing the inspiration myself. With the background of this sculpture, I see more than creepy headless figures and instead see the atrocities of war and how such large scale inhumanity creates so many anonymous victims.

Public art is often cited as one way to better highlight history of places, especially when original structures no longer stand. What do you think about using art to tell history?

District Sights: The National Air & Space Museum

Reflections of a Public Historian in a Science Museum

My husband and I recently took a long weekend trip to Washington, D.C. to visit my brother and see the sights. We had both been twice before and seen the monuments and some of the major museums, so this time we had a pretty specific list of things we wanted to see.

As a public historian, I obviously enjoy history museums usually more than science or art, but as a museum professional I also deeply appreciate these spaces and do like to push beyond my usual interests. For our trip to Washington, D.C., my husband specifically requested that we visit the National Air & Space Museum, which is a mixture of science and history. It’s an area of history that I’m less interested in except for where it overlaps with social history (how the space race impacted regular Americans, the struggles for racial and gender equality in the study and exploration of space, etc.), but nonetheless we had a great time.

I enjoyed watching my brother and husband discuss, interact with, and enjoy the science together. They showed all of the major markers of visitor engagement–touching what they were allowed to, pointing at exhibit features, talking about what they were learning, and retaining information from one exhibit to another and relating events and facts together. Unfortunately, many of the exhibit spaces in the museum were closed as they carry out renovations, but we did get to see Explore the Universe, Space Race, Moving Beyond Earth, and Exploring the Planets.

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Hubble Telescope image of a nebula.

Space Race traced the history of the Cold War-era competition between the USSR and the USA to achieve major feats of space exploration. It was interesting to learn that the science that would fuel the space race began during World War II with German missiles.

We also saw the SkyLab, the precursor to the Space Station, a space for scientists from many nations to live in space for periods of time and conduct research.

Exploring the Universe focused on the history and development of instruments people have used to view space.

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I was happy to see some inclusion of women’s accomplishments and contributions to astronomy in this exhibit in the text about William Herschel’s sister Caroline Herschel who assisted him in his work. The exhibit caption describes her as “William’s Essential Assistant” but goes on to say that she was “a fine astronomer in her own right.” She found 8 comets and was the first woman to receive a salary as a scientist, but is best known for assisting her brother in his observations and telescope building…

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Another woman included in this exhibit is Henrietta Swan Leavitt who identified 2,400 variable stars and discovered the link between the brightness and length of brightness cycle of Cepheid variables–basically this discovery is what astronomers needed to measure distances of nebulae.

Exploring the Planets was an interesting exhibit that looked at the properties of each planet in our solar system. It was interesting to learn about the environments and orbits of these planets. It’s crazy to think about just how different these planets are–the red dot on Jupiter is a storm that’s been raging for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. Some are made of ice, others have years-long seasons, different lengths of day and night. That was a fun exhibit to walk through and discuss mind-boggling facts together.

All in all, a fun morning spent learning about space with my hubby and brother. I’m interested to see the museum when it’s finished with all of its big renovations and gallery updates. Maybe there will be even more inclusion of women’s and minorities’ roles in air and space.

#MusicMonday: The 1992 Los Angeles Riots

On this day in 1992 the Los Angeles riots broke out in response to two specific incidents in the city and general mounting racial tensions. Just over a year prior an African American man, Rodney King, was beaten and tasered by police during a traffic stop/chase resulting in the officers involved being charged with excessive force.

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Also around the same time a teenage African American girl, Latasha Harlins, was shot in a convenience store when the Korean-American shopkeeper accused the girl of trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. The shopkeeper grabbed the girl who hit the woman in order to break free. As the girl walked away the shopkeeper shot her in the back of the head. The girl was holding 2 dollars in one hand when her body was found by investigators. The 51-year-old woman who shot her was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and only ordered to pay a $500 fine and served no prison time.

On April 29, 1992 the officers in the Rodney King trial were acquitted of excessive force and assault charges based on blurry footage at the beginning of a tape showing the beating in which King tried to run away toward an officer.

The acquittal of these officers on top of the light sentencing of the shopkeeper in the death of Latasha Harlins caused many in the black community to further increase their distrust of the criminal justice system after years of accusations of excessive force by the LAPD against African Americans.

The racial tension between blacks and Koreans in LA had also long been brewing due to perceived slights on both sides. Many African Americans viewed the migrants as newcomers who were profiting off of the black community while simultaneously mistreating, stereotyping, and disrespecting them. Cultural differences and language barriers exacerbated the problem as well as economic difficulties facing the area.

All of these tensions came to a head when news of the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King reached South Central Los Angeles. Riots and looting broke out that lasted for days and resulted in 55 deaths, over 2,000 injuries, and more than $1 billion of damage. The National Guard was called in and the riots lasted for 6 days. More than 12,000 people were arrested. 65% of looted stores were Korean owned, but black and Latino-owned stores were also looted.

The events leading up to the riots, the riots themselves, and the aftermath all inspired and prompted responses from musicians of many genres, especially hip hop and rap artists. Here are 5 songs that came out of the Los Angeles riots.

  • “Hellrazor” – Tupac, 1997 (posthumous release)tupac

Lyrics that reference Latasha Harlins’ death: “Dear Lord if ya hear me, tell me why
Little girl like LaTasha, had to die
She never got to see the bullet, just heard the shot
Her little body couldn’t take it, it shook and dropped”

Tupac also made mention of Latasha in several of his other songs including “Something 2 Die 4,” “Thugz Mansion,” and “I Wonder if Heaven Got a Ghetto,” in which he raps, “Tell me what’s a black life worth/A bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts.” He also dedicated “Keep Ya Head Up” to Latasha.

  • “Black Korea” – Ice Cube, 1991

Released after Latasha Harlins’ death but before the riots, this song was accused of inciting violence against Asian Americans and encouraging racism against them by African Americans. The song sheds light on the tensions between the two groups in South Central Los Angeles.

“Thinkin’ every brother in the world’s out to take
So they watch every damn move that I make
They hope I don’t pull out a gat and try to rob
They funky little store, but, b****, I got a job.”

  • “Livin’ on the Edge”- Aerosmith, 1993

Aerosmith has said that this song was inspired by the LA riots, but the lyrics do not specifically state anything that directly links back to the riots. Critics of the song argued it was a half-hearted attempt at social commentary.

“There’s somethin’ wrong with the world today
I don’t know what it is
Something’s wrong with our eyes
We’re seein’ things in a different way
And God knows it ain’t his
It sure ain’t no surprise”
  • “Free Your Mind” – En Vogue, 1992freeyourmind
The female group took a more positive approach and encouraged unity and discouraged stereotyping, prejudice, and racism.
“Why oh why must it be this way
Before you can read me you gotta learn how to see me, I said
Free your mind and the rest will follow
Be colour blind, don’t be so shallow.”
  • “Black Tie, White Noise” – David Bowie, 1993
In Los Angeles with his new wife, model Iman, Bowie witnessed the riots firsthand. This experience inspired “Black Tie, White Noise.” Bowie said of the riots: “It was awesome and numbing and it was the most apocalyptic experience I’ve been through in my life. It was a feeling of the irreconcilable differences that seem to have been fabricated in America and how hard it will be to reconcile those differences, to heal the wound, which is quite gaping.”
“Getting my facts from a Benneton ad
I’m lookin’ through African eyes
Lit by the glare of an L.A. fire
I’ve got a face, not just my race.”