Thursday, June 30, 2005

Poem: Raúl Zurita

ZuritaOne of my taglines for several years has been "my god is ghetto," which in 1982 floated, like several other similar phrases, in 8-foot letters of smoke above the city of New York. But that wasn't my doing: Raúl Zurita had contracted a skywriter to declaim lines from his poems above one of the world's great artistic capitals (and the homebase of the United Nations) both to publicize his second book, Anteparaíso, which is one of my favorites, and to call attention to the marginal peoples of the world (including those of his native country, Chile, which was under the control of right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet). Supposedly these poetic valentines by this little known poet were visible from many different parts of Gotham.

Zurita has more than once undertaken the grand gesture. A few years before the skywriting stunt, he had grown so disillusioned with the persecution and brutality that were taking place in Chile that as part of a performance piece in front of the Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago, the capital, after burning his face and masturbating, he tried to blind himself with ammonium acid so that he would never have to see them again (lay eyes upon here takes on more than a metaphorical meaning). He failed, thankfully, which allowed him to accomplish another powerful artistic, but less self-destructive gesture: to finish his trilogy of volumes based in part of Dante's exalted trilogy, and informed by his study of mathematics and his travels across Chile's long, high terrain, in particular, the Atacama Desert, which serves as the basis for a sequence of strange and strangely comic poems. The first volume was Purgatorio (1979) and the last was La Vida Nueva (1994), referring of course to Dante's later La vita nuova.

In the interim he has also published a number of other books of poetry, read all over the globe, and witnessed the political transformation in Chile; whereas he was herded, like thousands of other people, into the hold of the Maipo, a ship, and tortured in 1973 as part of the post-coup crackdown, by 1993, he had served as his country's poet laureate, his voice joining those of some of Chile's greatest lyric artists, including Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda and Nicanor Parra. In 2003, he broke a 3-year silence to publish INRI, a book of poems commemorating the 30th anniversary of the September 11, 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende and the thousands of victims of torture and murder, the disappeared, in the decades that followed.

Here is my translation of a trifle of his work, one of those brief lyrics in which he speaks of speaking with a version of himself.


As in a dream, when all was lost
Zurita told me it was going to clear
because in the very depths of night
he had seen a star. Then
huddled against the back
of the boat's planked deck
it seemed to me that the light again
lit my lifeless eyes.
That was it. I felt sleep invade me:


Como en un sueño, cuando todo estaba perdido
Zurita me dijo que iba a amainar
porque en lo más profundo de la noche
había visto una estrella. Entonces
acurrucado contra el fondo de tablas del bote
me pareció que la luz nuevamente
iluminaba mis apagados ojos.
Eso bastó. Sentí que el sopor me invadía:

Copyright © Raúl Zurita, 2005. Translation by John Keene, with thanks to Zurita's frequent translator, Jack Schmidt.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Canada (& Spain) Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage + Mexico's Racist Stamp

Canadian FlagA truly momentous event has occurred just north of the upper tier of "blue states," which is to say, the U.S. border: Canada's legislature, by a vote of 158-133, has ratified the 2004 decision of its Supreme Court that gay marriage legislation would not violate the country's constitution, making our sister nation and largest trading partner only the third country in the world (after the two constitutional monarchies of the Netherlands and Belgium) to legalize same-sex marriages. Liberal Party leader and Roman Catholic Prime Minister Paul Martin, whose brief tenure at the head of the minority government has been marked by an ongoing financial scandal and a razor-thin win over his Conservative opposition just a few months ago, led the push for the legislation, which confirms what has been increasingly evident over the last few years, Canada's considerably more progressive stances on a range of social issues.

According to Beth Duff-Brown's Yahoo! News/AP account, some of Martin's fellow Liberal lawmakers voted against the legislation and at least one Cabinet member resigned, but a coalition of various left-leaning parliamentarians--including members of the Bloc Québécois, who represent constituencies in what was once Canada's most conservative province but which is now one of its most socially liberal, and the reliably progressive New Democratic Party, which is part of the Liberals' governing coalition--provided enough votes to seal the win. The legislation is expected to pass in Canada's smaller, unelected, Liberal Party-dominated Senate, thereby becoming law at some point in July 2005.

Whatever one thinks of gay marriage or marriage in general as a social, political and economic institution--as a legal entity--the Canadian vote represents a landmark statement on behalf of equality, democracy and freedom. Many news accounts have noted that a majority of Canadians support the rights and freedom of gays and lesbians to marry, and so far 34,000 have done so. While the US Constitution's 14th Amendment, Section 1, final clause, passed in the wake of the North's resounding victory in the Civil War and the defeat of the nefarious slave system, clearly guarantees equal protection under all federal laws, the truth of the matter is in 49 states, the District of Columbia, and US territories LGBT people are obviously still being denied the equal protections and rights provided under our government's acknowledgement and certification of civil marriage. In Canada, although this was no longer the case in Ontario and British Columbia, two of its most populous provinces, as far back as 2003, the House of Commons decision comprehensively extends it by law to all the provinces, including the more conservative ones like Alberta.

Despite the fact that the US usually recognizes heterosexual/opposite-sex marriages contracted in most (all?) foreign countries, I would imagine that only Massachusetts will honor the Canadian same-sex marriages. (Will other nations, such as the more liberal ones in Europe, honor these marriages? How do they respond to unions civilly contracted in Belgium and the Netherlands?) That is, until other US states follow Massachusetts' lead. A judicial decision on same-sex marriage, I believe, is pending in New York State.

Addendum: Spain has just joined Canada in legalizing same-sex marriage. Despite vocal protests from the Roman Catholic Church and conservative politicians, Spain's Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who assumed control of the government after the popular uproar over the formerly right-wing government's inadequate response to the Madrid train bombings, was able to push the legislation through Spain's lower house of Parliament, the Congress of Deputies, by a vote of 187-147, overriding the country's Senate, which means that as in Canada, it will become law. (Doug Ireland quotes from Rodríguez Zapatero's remarkable speech, which in addition to making an impressive argument for equality and the notion of how interconnected everyone in Spanish society is, cites two of the greatest gay poets of all time, Luis Cernuda and Constantine Cavafy.)

In fact, this is probably probably more earth-shaking than the Canadian vote, in part because Spain was for many years one of the most consistently conservative and Catholic of the major European countries. You could possibly chart this conservative period as running from Ferdinand and Isabela's unification of Spain and their expulsion or forced conversion of the Arabs and Jews in 1492, through the long period of the Holy Inquisition in the 16th and 17th centuries, to Francisco Franco's fascist rule, which lasted from 1939 through 1975, with a few interludes of liberalization. Since Franco's death and the restoration of the monarchy, Spain's government has alternated between the right and left, and in recent years, the former has consistently held power.

In fact before the horrific train bombing on March 11, 2004, Spain had a right-wing governing coalition, headed by José Maria Aznar, which against the public will had sent Spanish soldiers to Iraq. With the ascension of the Socialists under Zapatero ("Shoemaker"), the country has witnessed a political sea-change that mirrors a longstanding change in social views, especially among the young. Zapatero promptly recalled the soldiers from Iraq and this week pushed through new divorce legislation and changes to stem-cell rules. Yahoo! News notes that such changes are "popular among young people," and that a poll last year showed that 70% of the population overall supported the move.


On a completely different note, I was planning to post an article I came across on DR1 by a young Black American woman who'd spent time in Santiago, the second largest city in the Dominican Republic, as part of an educational program and experienced a profound cultural--and in particular, racial--shock (Mendi and Keith Obadike's operatic piece The Sour Thunder is based in part, I think, on Mendi's sojourn, while a student at Spelman, in Santiago); and I intended to post my own remarks, somewhat in response, on my experiences there. But it isn't happening just yet. Instead, I return to Mexico's problems with racism and racialist thinking, which have gotten some attention in recent months because of Mexican President Vicente Fox's comments on Mexicans immigrants' willingness to take jobs that "not even blacks" wanted, and because of what I describe below.

(Since I have mentioned the Dominican Republic, though, that country's inexactly parallel situation with Haitian workers--who are being forcibly repatriated as I type this, despite the incoherent Haitian government's attempts to close its borders, its appeals to the current Dominican administration's good will not to repatriate its people, the Dominican government's fear of appearing insensitive and racist, many Dominican patriots' desire to have the Haitians expelled and their fear of a "unification" of the two countries, and machinations of Dominican landowners and businesses to employ Haitians, who, given the devastation of their own country and their inability to freely immigrate to the US or Canada, take low-wage or slave-wage jobs in the DR--is worth broaching.)
Where am I going with all of this? Memin Pinguin. Never heard of him? Neither had I. Well, he's a Mexican cartoon figure who is featured on a series of official government postage stamps being issued today. Nothing wrong with that, you say. Except that as shown at right, Memin Pinguin is a racist grotesque, a homegrown Mexican Sambo-style coon depiction. And the racism of the Memin Pinguin depiction doesn't lie in the images alone; in the cartoon series in which he's featured since the 1940s, according to several accounts I've read, he embodies a number of the traditional, infantilizing racist stereotypes attributed to Black people in the US, particularly during the Jim Crow period (and exported all across the globe). Look out, Topsy!

But the Mexican government officials don't see there being anything wrong, of course. Their cartoon pickaninny is going to be an ambassador, "spreading good news," according to the publisher of the comics in which he appears! Ah yes, a racist and buffoonish drawing is going to serve as an international herald--to whom? Fortunately, this "good news" wasn't lost on Black activists and others in Mexico, who condemned the Mexican government's decision to feature this overtly racist stereotypic depiction (along with the equally racist depiction of his Mami/Mammy) on a series of national stamps. To quote the CNN article:
The boy, hapless but lovable, is drawn with exaggerated features, thick lips and wide-open eyes. His appearance, speech and mannerisms are the subject of kidding by white characters in the comic book.

Activists said the stamp was offensive, though officials denied it.

"One would hope the Mexican government would be a little more careful and avoid continually opening wounds," said Sergio Penalosa, an activist in Mexico's small black community on the southern Pacific coast.
An official of the Mexican Postal Service couldn't help but reinforce the stereotype:
Carlos Caballero, assistant marketing director for the Mexican Postal Service, said the stamps are not offensive, nor were they intended to be.

"This is a traditional character that reflects part of Mexico's culture," Caballero said. "His mischievous nature is part of that character."

However, Penalosa said many Mexicans still assume all blacks are foreigners, despite the fact that at one point early in the Spanish colonial era, Africans outnumbered Spanish in Mexico.
Their own little trickster bad chillun Other, and on stamps no less! I won't get into Mexico's complex and troubled racial history, which like every other nation in this hemisphere has included the marginalization and slaughter of Native peoples and the subsequent enslavement of Blacks (the two in particular were linked in Mexico's case because of Bartolomé de las Casas); one aspect of this history has been an enduring racism against its large indigenous Indian population, which has resulted in periodic flareups such as the war in Chiapas; a racism of a different but intense sort against its native Black population, which has long been presumed not to exist; and, among the White/European ruling élites, against the visibly mestizo majority, which is evident in Mexican-language media, politics, business circles, and so on. Related to these forms of racism is Mexico's guiding mestizaje ideology, from which the Black "third root" has been almost completely erased and effaced in both official and popular discourse.

I will, however, broach the fact that when Lázaro Cárdenas (the son of Mexico's famous leftist leader Cuahtémoc Cárdenas, who was mayor of Mexico City and had the presidency stolen from under his feet by the notorious Carlos Salinas de Gortari in 1988, and the grandson of one of Mexico's greatest leftist and uncorruptible presidents, Lázaro Cárdenas) ran for the governorship of Michoacán State a few years ago, his opponent AlfredoAnaya viciously attacked him because Cárdenas married an Afro-Cuban woman. In fact, Anaya managed to conflate Blackness and foreignness in such a way as to claim that Mexicans--or Michoacanos in particular--wanted to be governed by "our own race, our own people," as though Cárdenas's marriage to a Black women rendered made him ontologically Black as well (racialization by association has a long history in the US, of course), and as though the Black presence in Mexico could only be (seen as) alien and foreign. Although Anaya lost--though by only five percentage points--it appears that his rhetoric was not so idiosyncratic but representative of a mindset, also clear in Fox's and other officials' comments, that is quite prevalent.

Dr. Bobby Vaughn and others are conducting fascinating research in Black Mexican communities, so as I did before, I'll direct you here, here or here for more information. Also, UPI correspondent Steve Sailor provides a basic run-through in his article "Where Did Mexico's Blacks Go?" He notes that despite the long history of marginalization of Black Mexicans, attitudes are changing slowly, and a Black-oriented museum opened up in Guerrero State, which is named after Mexico's second President, who was an Afro-Mestizo.

But hey, let's get back to our little grinning inky boy-on-a-stamp:
Publisher Manelick De la Parra told the government news agency Notimex that the character would be sort of a goodwill ambassador on Mexican letters and postcards. "It seems nice if Memin can travel all over the world, spreading good news," de la Parra said, calling him "so charming, so affectionate, so wonderful, generous and friendly."
Irony, as they say, is utterly lost on some people. Many of them, too many, in fact.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Tuesday Quote: Barthes + Stonewall Anniversary

"Viewed as a transition the face of Garbo reconciles two iconographic ages, it assures the passage from awe to charm. As is well known, we are today at the other pole of this evolution; the face of Audrey Hepburn, for instance, is individualized, not only because of its peculiar thematics (woman as child, woman as kitten) but also because of her person, of an almost unique specification of the face, which has nothing of the essence left in it, but is constituted by an infinite complexity of morphological functions. As a language, Garbo's singularity was of the order of the concept, thatof Audrey Hepburn is of the order of the substance. The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn, an Event."
--Roland Barthes, from "The Face of Garbo," in Mythologies (1957).


Also, as a post on AmericaBlog reminded me, today is the 36th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City, one of the signal events in the long history of gay liberation/LGBT equality and human rights struggle in the US, and really, across the globe.

Monday, June 27, 2005

PBS: POV's The Education of Shelby Knox

Last night for the first time in a while I caught PBS's usually provocative and often superlative program "POV," which features independently made documentaries. The documentary being screened was Marion Lipschutz's and Rose Rosenblatt's "The Education of Shelby Knox," a superlative exploration of a young woman's dawning political and social activism. The protagonist is Shelby Knox, whom the viewer first meets as a 15-year-old self-described conservative Southern Baptist from Lubbock, Texas, who, like all high school students in Texas has received abstinence-only education, because in 1995 then-governor George W. Bush signed it into law (the documentary also notes that in 1996 "abstinence-only" initiatives received national attention when President Bill Clinton included grants for abstinence programs in his welfare-reform legislation).
Shelby and parents
Knox shrewdly notes that despite the abstinence pledges and the generally conservative and religious atmosphere in town fellow students are still getting pregnant and contracting STDs, and she also remarks that what is being called "sex education" by her charismatic pastor is anything but. The documentary then follows her active participation in Lubbock's Youth Commission, which for a while becomes the primary vehicle through which she and others press for real sex education; her political conversion; her affiliation, despite her conservative background, with gay students at her high school who are trying to gain recognition for a "gay-straight" alliance; her struggles with her fellow activists, including the head of the Youth Commission, and her parents (pictured above with her, at far right); and her personal trajectory as an increasingly open-minded thinker and agent of change.

Lipschutz and Rosenblatt treat their subjects and the related issues fairly and respectfully, and in a brilliant move, they turn much of the film over to Shelby herself. A compelling young woman with intellectual aspirations and horizons that exceed those of many of the adults around her, Shelby Knox reinvigorated my belief that even in the most retrograde and stifling environments people, and perhaps most hearteningly young people, can develop their own ideas and act upon them, despite the consequences. Against the stridently triumphalist rhetoric of the Greg Neumayrs of this country that a majority has bought into the Groupthink, fearmongering, myopia, and personality cultism that passes for public and political discourse in this country and that the rest of us who haven't should simply bend, bow and accede, POV and "The Education of Shelby Knox" show that even in the "red" cores of this country, there are those who refuse to simply follow, and instead think and act freely, no matter what the dangers or costs.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

DR Photos: Peña Gómez; Guevara y Caamaño

Yet another DR photo. Though I'm almost cold-free, I didn't feel up to much today, so I missed New York's Gay Pride March, and haven't been able to produce any longish entries here.

Instead, I'm posting another photo from the trip, taken in the Gazcue neighborhood of Santo Domingo, west of the Colonial Zone. Most (all?) of the major Dominican political parties have headquarters there; the last time we were down there and walked through Gazcue, we happened upon the HQs of the ruling PLD party (its head, Dr. Leonel Fernández Reyna, is the current President of DR and previously served from 1996-2000), and the PRD, or Dominican Revolutionary Party, which was headed for years by the intellectual Juan Bosch (who was deposed in a coup in the early 1960s, which led to US occupation and the 12-year rule in the late 1960s and early 1970s of the arch-racist Joaquin Balaguer, who later led the Reformista Party in his subsequent decade long rule from 1984-1994).
Peña Gómez
One of the major leaders in recent PRD history was José Francisco Peña Gómez (1937-1998, pictured at right) a Dominican of Haitian ancestry and the beloved former mayor of Santo Domingo, who three times ran for and lost the Presidency, though he nearly won in 1996, despite vicious anti-Haitian and racist attacks orchestrated by Balaguer (who even wrote a book demonizing Black people). (I should note that Peña Gómez, after whom Santo Domingo's international airport is now named, also was alleged by various sources, such as Philadelphia's City Paper, Peña Gómezto have bankrolled his run for the presidency by courting drug traffickers). Balaguer managed to foil Peña Gómez's electoral success by forming a coalition with Fernández Reyna, who then defeated Peña Gómez and the PRD (its HQs I photoed last winter, at left) in the runoff, presiding over four years of economic success and financial scandal ($100 million simply disappeared from the government coffers).

Of course, this scandal hardly compares to the raft of scandals which characterized the most recent government, led by PRD-member Hippólito Mejia, including a bank failure that was underwritten by $2.2 billion in Dominican Treasury funds, seriously crippling an already weak economy...but that's a story for another day.

The photo below, taken in Gazcue, shows a billboard of two important figures for the Dominican left, and I believe sits on the grounds of HQ of the Fuerza de la Revolución (FR), a far-left party that united the Communists and several other key radical and independent political groups and organizations. Pictured are Che Guevara (on the left), the enduring icon of a certain era of Latin American transnational Socialism and a hero of the Cuban Revolution, and Francisco Caamaño Deñó (on the right) a colonel in the Dominican Army who was a key representative of the anti-Trujillo and later anti-US invasionary forces and briefly held the presidency in 1965.

Caamaño was a leading figure among the April 1965 revolutionists who overthrew the military-backed Triumvirate that had deposed the democratically elected leftist (PRD) leader Juan Bosch. Caamaño's associates, who came to be known as Constitutionalistas and who drew considerable popular supported, wanted ultimately to reinstall the deposed Bosch to the presidency and to reinstitute the Constitution of 1963, while the Triumvirate aimed eventually to place Dr. Joaquin Balaguer, a wily politician and confidant of the assassinated dictator Rafael L. Trujillo Molina (perhaps best known for his ordering the slaughter of 30,000+ Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans in 1937; his brutal dictatorship and fascist leanings; his persecution of unionists and Roman Catholic clergy; and his role in helping to destabilize leftist governments across Latin America) in the presidency.

Caamaño ran the country from what was known as the Constitutional Sector, headquartered in a building on el Conde (the main thoroughfare of the Colonial Zone), and, not long after being sworn to the office, renounced it in favor of the former president of the Chamber of Deputies, José Rafael Molina Ureña. Shortly after the Constitutionalistas' removal of the Triumvirate from office and their successful attempt at blocking the military forces from crossing the Ozama River and entering the Colonial Zone area of Santo Domingo, the United States sent an contingent of marines and for the second time occupied the Dominican Republic. Despite international protests, the US manipulated the Organization of American States into backing its action, got several other Latin American nations (including Brazil, which was then under a dictatorship) to send forces, and helped to establish a parallel government that, unsurprisingly, facilitated the election of Balaguer; though Caamaño was sent to London as an envoy in 1966, by the following year he was in exile in Cuba, which had opposed the Trujillo dictatorship and openly protested the American occupation.

According to the Dominican authorities, Caamaño died leading a guerilla group in 1973. According to Ernesto Sagas's and Orlando Inoa's The Dominican People: A Documentary History, Caamaño, an enduring hero of Dominican independence and one of its great leftist visionaries, was slain along with his small, unsuccessful expeditionary force by the much larger and more powerful military forces, then under Balaguer's command, to which he'd once belonged.

Che Billboard

Saturday, June 25, 2005

DR Photo: The World from above the Earth

I'm still battling a cold, so here's another DR photo taken on Calle las Mercedes outside the Parque Independencia in Santo Domingo. It shows an exhibit of giant color photographs of scenes across the globe taken from high above the earth. The plate window-sized images ringed the gates of the park, which houses the tombs of the DR's 1844 independence leaders. Unfortunately I didn't manage to write down the name(s) of the photographer(s).

The particular image the young man is viewing holds special resonance for me, not only because of the terrible tragedy that happened there, but also because I lived for 7 years right across the river from where the Twin Towers once stood, and we used to be able see them from our home. Only a year before 9/11, I did a reading with Asha Bandele in a Barnes & Noble beneath the base of one that played for months on one of New York City's local cable channel; I vividly remember ascending the steep banks of escalators to reach the vast, wind-swept plaza....

Photo Exhibit

Friday, June 24, 2005

Downing Street Memo + Basquiat_in_Brooklyn's Event @ Nuyorican

By now most readers of J's Theater are probably familiar with the Downing Street Memo, which was actually minutes taken during a meeting, between top British officials and those in the White House in July 2002, concerning the then-looming Iraq War. The original memo, which was leaked during Tony Blair's parliamentary campaign, became memos when about six or seven more were subsequently released a few weeks ago. After the appearance of the initial one, blogs like Downing Street Memo, After Downing Street and Big Brass Alliance, and afterwards many of the other, better known liberal bloggers like AmericaBlog, Daily Kos, Atrios, Juan Cole, Doug Ireland, and numerous others, pushed the media for greater coverage of what are extremely significant documents, and the government for answers on when exactly the W administration actually decided to go to war against Saddam Hussein (the memos appear to make clear that it was well before W claimed, corroborating previous allegations by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and former top national security advisor Richard Clarke) and whether it not it actively lied and dissimulated, with the active connivance of the British government, by exaggerating, misstating or hiding evidence to convince the American people and Congress of the need for war.

The original leaked memo notes that the W administration was "fix[ing]" the "intelligence and facts" "around the policy," which seems like a clear enough indictment to me, though some W supporters and even liberal commentators have claimed alternative connotations. So be it, but actively lying to Congress, which alone has the Constitutional power to declare war, let alone all the other things that occurred to get our troops over there toppling Saddam, sounds like an impeachable offense. Given that Republicans control both houses of Congress, however, it's unlike we'll be seeing a trial anytime soon. (Would ill Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who got his start harassing Black voters in Arizona, be as jolly and dapper as he was when sitting in judgment of Bill Clinton?) The release of the original memo may have had some effect in Tony Blairs loss of 100 seats in the British House of Commons (were the Conservative Party more than a bad right-wing joke, and the Liberal Party not a pallid version of the old Labour Party, Blair might actually have been knocked off his perch), and yet most of the mainstream US press refused to cover it for almost five weeks. Some top editors of major newspapers, like the Los Angeles Times's formerly "liberal" Michael Kinsley, even pooh-poohed what is obviously a very serious issue altogether.

The easily cowed and timorous Democrats, however, have not been completely silent since the electoral debacle last November; Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) has led a charge by Democratic House members to demand accountability from the W administration. On Conyers' site, you can sign the letter he prepared, which is the same one more than 80 other members of Congress sent W on May 5, 2005. It asks the White House some hard questions about the Memo and its implications, and the more citizen signatories it gets, the better. I should add that the Blueblooded Weathervane himself, John Kerry, finally has prepared his own letter (he claimed several weeks ago that as soon as he returned to Congress he was going to broach this issue, but it took the senior Senator from Massachusetts, Teddy Kennedy, to deliver remarks on the floor of the Senate first), which was leaked to Raw Story today. A number of key Democratic senators, including Barbara Boxer, John Corzine (soon to be Governor of New Jersey), Frank Lautenberg, Dick Durbin, and Tim Johnson have signed on to it.

If you can, sign John Conyers' letter, and think about this: if Democrats were to regain the House and Senate in 2006, Conyers, as the ranking member would become head of the House Judiciary Committee and Henry Waxman (D-CA) would head the Government Reform Committee, while hard-hitter Pat Leahy would head the Senate Judiciary Committee. Impeachment would not be out of the question.... Voting machine shenanigans notwithstanding, do what you can to make this happen!

On a completely different note, fellow afroblogizen and cogitator Frank Leon Roberts hosts a 2005 Gay Pride event featuring James Earl Hardy, Staceyanne Chin, Alphonso Morgan, and Hanifah Walidah tomorrow at the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe.

Frank's Event
Another photo from DR:

An artist flipping through his paintings on el Conde, the main street in Santo Domingo's historic Zona Colonial.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Thursday Quote: Kant

"Enlightenment is man's release from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-imposed is this immaturity when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage...."
-Immanuel Kant, "What is Enlightenment" (1784)

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Obadike + Villareal + Bass (This Week!)

This is a week of openings for exhibits and performances by several multitalented people I know pretty well. I've been under the weather so I may miss the openings, but when I'm feeling better I intend to view the exhibits.

First up, fellow CCer Dr. Mendi Lewis Obadike, who brilliant posts on SWEAT, will be showing some of her work in the Rhizome Artbase exhibit, beginning tomorrow at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, 210 11th Avenue 2nd Floor NYC 10001. The opening was tonight at 6:30 pm.

RHIZOME ArtBase 101
June 23 - September 10, 2005

RHIZOME ARTBASE 101 surveys salient themes in Internet-based art-making, a practice that has flourished in the last ten years. The exhibition presents forty selections from's online archive of new media art, the ArtBase, which was launched in 1999 and currently holds some 1,500 works by artists from around the world. Featured works are grouped by ten unifying themes and include seminal pieces by early practitioners as well as projects by some of the most pioneering emerging talents working in the field today. Encompassing software, games, moving image and websites installed on computers or elaborated in installations, Rhizome ArtBase 101 presents the Internet as a strapping medium that rivals other art forms in its ability to buttress varied critical and formal explorations.

You can view the digital work, "Keeping up Appearances," here.

VillarealA very good friend of a very good friend, writer and artist Rebecca Villareal, is having her first Chicago exhibit at the Jumping Bean Cafe in Pilsen.

Her photos (like "New Window" at left) are visible here.

Today Alison Neumer positively blurbed the exhibit in the Chicago Tribune:

Philadelphia-born artist Rebecca Villarreal captures quiet daily moments in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood in her first photography exhibit, "Intimate on 18th Street," a collection of 22 black and white images that opened Friday in the neighborhood's Cafe Jumping Bean.

Villarreal, who also is a published poet, photographed a nearby barber shop and the men who wield scissors there, a ballet class for young girls taught out of a neighbor's spare room, and a sewing machine store packed with old models.

"I'd like to see more people embrace the small joys of life," Villarreal said, pointing to the subtle details and emotions in her photos that eventually emerge for the patient viewer. "New Ballerina" is a straight-on portrait of a small girl in a ballet skirt and shoes whose face is bright with pleasure and concentration.

Last year Villarreal, 36, moved to Pilsen from Washington, D.C., where she had lived starting in college. She was inspired by her new surroundings, she said.

"It's like a muse falling down on you," she said. "It needs to be shared, and that's why I make art."

"Intimate on 18th Street" runs through July 21 at the cafe, 1439 W. 18th St.
Finally, this Saturday, fellow CCer and sower of beautiful spirits Holly Bass presents her one-time, one-woman performance, "Diary of a Baby Diva," which the press release describes like this: "A giddy concoction of comedy, monologues, lipsynching and musical dance sequences--the Village Voice called it 'mesmerizing'--it bends genres and genders. It'll take place at this year's Downtown Urban Theater Festival, during Gay Pride weekend.

Diary of a Baby Diva
for one night only at the
Cherry Lane Theatre Studio
Written and Performed by Holly Bass
Directed by Barbara Colaciello-Williams

Cherry Lane Theatre Studio
7:30PM, Saturday, June 25, 2005
38 Commerce Street, New York City

Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door.

To order call 212-352-3101 or go to (then go to "Downtown Urban Theater Festival 2005 (DUTF)" and click on "The Dakota & Diary of a Baby Diva."

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Trip Reading (Senna; Kluge) + Pic

For once I acted like I had good sense and didn't take 10 books to read on a four-day trip to the Dominican Republic. I only brought along two: acclaimed author Danzy Senna's new novel, Symptomatic, which I read and finished in a little over a day, and Alexander Kluge's The Devil's Blind Spot: Tales from the New Century, which at 100 stories is a distilled version of the German original that includes, I believe I read somewhere, at over 500. (His New Notebooks 1-17: "The Uncanniness of Time", from the 1970s, has about as many, and some are recycled, such as one of my personal favorites, "From the Age of the Enlightenment." ) I did not buy any books this trip, mainly because I didn't visit even one bookstore, though at the airport's giftshop, which includes a small book section, I saw poetry and fiction anthologies that were very interesting. The last time I was there, I purchased a thorough, readable history of the country, Historia Dominicana (no less), written in Spanish by Dominican historian Jaime de Jesús Dominguez and published by ABC Editorial, a publishing company based in Santo Domingo--and, I should add, it does not stint on, but probingly examines the country's extensive African heritage, from the cover imagery to the text itself (I'll post more on the DR soon).

The Dominican author whose I am usually on the lookout for is the narrativist and critic
José Alcántara Almanzar, in part because I was once mistaken for him at the Macondo bookstore in New York City, and because his short fiction and critical texts are excellent. But I didn't do much searching this time through. Me disfrutaba....

SymptomaticSenna's book, as I've noted above, I read in almost one sitting. I found her first, award-winning novel Caucasia rich in characterizations, well plotted and thought out, almost perfectedly keyed in tone and voice, brimming with telling details: an excellent debut. Though the themes of the mixed race person's--in particular the "mulatto"--struggle to situate herself in the social structure and racial passing have been amply treated in American and African-American literature, Senna conversed with her literary predecessors while transcending them with her deeply engaging, contemporary story. My main quibble was the periodic slackness of the prose, but I didn't think it detracted from the book's overall high quality. Tisa B. pointed out to me that Caucasia was a response of sorts to an earlier work, The Deep North, by Senna's mother, the marvelous fiction writer, poet and translator Fanny Howe, and after reading that enchanting and provocative little novel, I completely agreed, and have wondered whether anyone has written about these two works in conjunction. (Does anyone know?)

Symptomatic has neither the grand aspirations nor the depth of characterizations, structural complexity or wealth of recognition that the earlier book had; it essentially treats a similar theme, that of the emotionally, socially and psychologically dislocated mixed race person in America, but uses the genre of the noir thriller, which makes it hard (impossible!) to put down, but ultimately renders it less successful than the earlier work. My main quibbles were with the moments of implausibility and obviousness (there is one very early on that made me say out loud, "Oh, no, please, this is too over the top"), as well as passages of discursive shorthand that exist in so much contemporary writing; Senna has estimable talent, as both her first novel and this one, despite its faults, make clear, and so I wanted her not ever to take the easy path, in terms of descriptions, details, characterizations, anything. (Anytime an author describes someone as "blond" these days, I cringe--and I do so even more when an American writer of color resorts to what is basically now a null term.) Senna's skills are extensive, however, so she manages to endow the novel with elements that a work by a less talented author wouldn't achieve, such as a deftly interwoven symbolism throughout (involving names, mirrors, etc.), many moments of irony and humor, including an identity switch that calls out to be transferred to film, and those telling details that make Senna an author I admire and read carefully. I'm still trying to decide whether or not I'll teach this novel this fall, but it was definitely worthwhile travel reading, especially, given its theme, to the DR.

Kluge NovelI'll write more about Kluge soon, but will say here that there is no writer like him in contemporary American literature, nor, for that matter, in almost any literature I know of (though there very well may be others writing elsewhere who are doing similarly unusual things). A noted lawyer, philosopher and social critic, and one of the most important filmmakers and leaders of the New German Cinema, with films such as Yesterday Girl (based on his famous story "Anita G."), The Female Patriot, Occasional Work of a Female Slave, and Artists Under the Bigtop: Perplexed, he has also published short fiction, or rather texts that hover between several different genres in which fiction, history and philosophy are central since the early 1960s, when he issued his first collection, Lebensläufe (Case Histories), which was translated initially by Leila Vennewitz as Attendance List for a Funeral, and then later under the more approximate English title. One of his most notable stylistic traits is his dizzying concision; in the early work, this function at the level of the sentence, which is to say in descriptive passages of pinpoint precision and detail, as well as aphorisms, but in the later stories (Kluge is around 73), the brevity rises to the level of the texts themselves--as overall length, concision of structure, characterization, you name it. Many of the stories in The Devil's Blind Spot (and he actually does write about the Devil, or some version of him, in many of the pieces) are no longer than two-three printed pages, or are broken up, as in the earlier work, into sections which also are as brief as prose poems, though they're written in declarative prose and fragments, and rarely in lyric language. I have about two sections to go, but I can say, anyone who can range from stories about medieval witchcraft to the unrequited souls of African slaves in Brazil to Adorno's girlfriend to the Islamicists' attacks on the American embassy at Islamabad to the thought processes of cilia (yes!) and make nearly all these texts work gets superprops from me.

I also realize as I'm concluding this book that a genius of Kluge's type is sorely needed in our contemporary American sociopolitical discourse, but his is such an acquired taste that it's unlikely he'll be read by more than a handfull of people. But more on him and the stories soon.

C. purchased a new, small camera, so we were snapping photos throughout the trip, and here is one of my favorites, a young brotha changing money in a gallery-money exchange-warehouse-hangout spot right off the main street, el Conde, and the park in front of the Cathedral Basílica of Santo Domingo, the oldest Catholic church in the oldest continously European-settled city in the Americas. To say his arms and hands are dancing as he's enjoying himself (money can do that to you!) wouldn't be an exaggeration.

Cambiando dinero
Photo © John Keene, 2005.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Back + Helen Oyeyemi + Sidgwick Review

I'm just back from an incredible trip with my partner C., elated and pretty exhausted, and I'll post a bit about some aspects of it eventually, but here are two little blurbs to two interesting pieces I came across today.

The first is a link to Felicia Lee's profile of Nigerian-British novelist Helen Oyeyemi in today's New York Times. Titled "Conjuring an Imaginary Friend in the Search for an Authentic Self," it touches upon Oyeyemi's new and highly praised first novel, The Icarus Girl, and its relation to her personal life story, the racism of British "multicultural" education, and the author's other projects, including a novel-in-progress that sounds fascinating. Lee, to whose articles I've previously linked, cannot help herself in terms of the hype surrounding Oyeyemi's youth, but this is hardly surprising, as it's been one of the media's and publishing industry's guiding memes for some time.

She does, however, manage to convince you that The Icarus Girl is one of the books to read this year (I'm definitely going to get it ASAP), and that the author, Oyeyemi, is a grounded, charming and prolific writer to follow.

In a recent (June 6, 2005) issue of The Nation, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes about an author for whom there is no contemporary hype, the Victorian Utilitarian, Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), whose name, I would imagine, is recognized by very few people these days, and is certainly less well known than either of his two major predecessors, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) or John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). In her spirited and persuasive yet fairly brief review, entitled "The Epistemology of the Closet" (playing obviously off Eve Sedgwick's landmark literary and cultural study) of Bart Schulz's just-published, mammoth biography of Sidgwick, Nussbaum suggests that Schulz has succeeded in portraying the tremendous complexity of an essential philosopher whose life work was to figure out how human beings could be happy and simultaneously pursue fairness. Among his intellectual descendents are some of the greatest thinkers of recent years, including Bernard Williams, John Rawls, and Amartya Sen. One of my favorite sections is when she quotes a section of Sidgwick's private notations to show his struggle, captured in an offhanded poetic voice and style that remind me of Whitman, Wittgenstein and others, with the normative ethos of his time:

1. These are my friends--beautiful, plain-featured, tender-hearted, hard-headed.
2. Pure, spiritual, sympathetic, debauched, worldly, violent in conflict.
3. Their virtue and vice are mine and not mine: they were made my friends before they were made virtuous and vicious.
4. Because I know them, the Universe knows them and you shall know them: they exist and will exist, because I love them.
5. This one is great and forgets me: I weep, but I care not, because I love him.
6. This one is afar off, and his life lies a ruin: I weep but I care not because I love him.
7. We meet, and their eyes sparkle and then are calm.
8. Their eyes are calm and they smile: their hands are quick and their fingers tremble.
9. The light of heaven enwraps them: their faces and their forms become harmonious to me with the harmony of the Universe.
10. The air of heaven is spread around them; their houses and books, their pictures and carpets make music to me as all things make music to God....
13. Some are women to me, and to some I am a woman.
14. Each day anew we are born, we meet and love, we embrace and are united for ever: with passion that wakes no longing, with fruition that brings no satiety.

I doubt I'll have much time to read this Sidgwick biography soon, even one that sounds so appealing, but when I break through my backlog, I'll keep this one in mind.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Poem: Michael Harper

I'm off for several days to celebrate my birthday, and I may not be able to post until I get back--though I may try to upload a few photos--so until then, a Michael Harper poem in keeping with my last couple posts:

Four Worthies: Souls of Black Folk

To Know, in heart, in groin;
to Move, trestle, bog, boat, mask;
to Love, woman, child, land, trees;
to Aspire, where blood, sperm, bone join.

Copyright © Michael S. Harper, from Images of Kin.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

130 Years of Sumner High School (St. Louis)

As a counter to the post on the anti-lynching resolution, I thought I'd mention a more positive historical story, that of Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri. This year, Sumner turns 130 years old, making it the oldest public high school for Black students west of the Mississippi River.

Sumner was founded in 1875 as the "High School for Colored Students" during the Reconstruction era (which Rutherford Hayes would end a year later in his successful ploy for the Presidency), and was named after the then just-deceased Massachusetts abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, whose personal dedication to the freedom and equality of African-Americans was exemplary. In 1848, he helped to found the Free Soil Party, some of whose adherents later went on to establish the anti-slavery Republican Party. In 1849 he legally challenged the segregation of schools in Boston. In 1856, he was caned to unconsciousness on the floor of the Senate by Southern pro-slavery Congressman Preston Brooks after insulting Brook's uncle in an attack on the slavery partisans in Kansas; because of his injuries, Sumner could not attend to his Senate duties for three years. During the early days of the Civil War, he was one of the first to push for the enlistment of Black soldiers, and strongly supported Union General John C. Frémont, later Senator from California, who unilaterally freed the slaves in Missouri in 1861 without federal authorization. Later he pushed through the Civil Rights bill of 1866 and the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, all of which had a dramatic effect on the participation, at least for a brief moment, of African Americans in American public and civil life. Sumner also led the impeachment proceedings against Southerner Andrew Johnson, and during Ulysses S. Grant's first term fell out with the Union War hero over what Sumner perceived to be his insufficient attention to the cause of Black liberty. Sumner died of a heart attack in 1874.

In sum, then, an appropriate person after whom to name the first public school for Black students. I should also note that ex-slave John Barry Meachum established the first St. Louis school for Black children in 1827, yet was forced to close it shortly thereafter. In 1847 Missouri outright banned the education of Blacks on its soil, fearing that intellectually armed they might revolt, so Meachum ingeniously started a school on a riverboat shortly thereafter. Also, William Greenleaf Eliot, the founder of Washington University in St. Louis and grandfather of the poet T. S. Eliot, co-founded a school to educated free and escaped Blacks at the height of the Civil War, in 1863; two days after it was opened it mysteriously burned down, though it continued at different sites for several years. Finally, Hiram Rhoades Revels, who became the first Black member of the United States Senate in 1870, from the state of Mississippi no less, also established schools for Black children. Revels, who had earlier been a principal of a school for Black children in Baltimore, started his St. Louis school around the start of the Civil War, and it also was located on a boat. I should also add that last fall I actually met Revels's grand-daughter, now an octogenarian; she lives in Chicago and is one of the premier collectors of African-American art in that city.)

I didn't attend Sumner (my own high school alma mater turns 50 years old this fall), but my parents, one of my grandfathers and both of my grandmothers did, one of my godmothers and one of my godfathers, many of my aunts, uncles and cousins did, as did the majority of Black teenagers through the period of integration of St. Louis's schools, which began in the late 1950s and continued well into my own high school years, in the 1980s. St. Louis's public (and private, for that matter) schools were racially segregated, as were most of its facilities and institutions; as the (once) chief city in a former slave state, it applied Jim Crow laws with a vengeance. (Actually, Blacks still were expected to get their food through the back doors of some restaurants as late as the mid-1960s, though "colored" drinking fountains and required back-of-the-bus seating were no longer officially in effect. )

Originally Sumner was located at 11th and Spruce Streets downtown, but after parents protested that the students were required to walk past the gallows and morgue, officials moved the school in the 1880s, and then in 1910, after parents again petitioned the school district, Sumner moved to its final site, 4248 Cottage Avenue, in the historic Ville neighborhood, with the building designed by famous educational architect William B. Ittner.

Sumner remained St. Louis City's only Black public high school until 1927, when Vashon High School was founded. (Vashon was named for George Boyer Vashon (1824-1878), an abolitionist and jurist who was the first Black person to graduate from Oberlin College and later became the first African-American lawyer in New York State in 1847 and the first Black person to run for statewide office in New York in 1855; and his John B. Vashon (1859-1924), a noted Black schoolteacher, lawyer and linguist who taught in the St. Louis Public schools for 34 years.) St. Louis's lone suburban Black high school for many years, (Frederick) Douglass High School, was established in 1892 in Webster Groves (home also to writer Jonathan Franzen), just up a hill from where I grew up.

Among Sumner's most famous alumni are Arthur Ashe, Chuck Berry, Grace Bumbry, Hon. William Clay, Billy Davis, Jr. (of the Fifth Dimension--group members Ron Townson and Lamonte McLemore were also from St. Louis), Dick Gregory (who graduated around the time of my mother and whose brother was her classmate), Robert Guillaume, Elston Howard (Yankee great), Robert McFerrin (the opera singer and father of Bobby "Don't Worry, Be Happy"), and Tina Turner (who was there when my uncle James was in school). (I think I heard that Congresswoman Maxine Waters also attended Sumner, but I'm not sure.)

In addition to a reunion in February and a black-tie fundraiser this upcoming Saturday, a core group of Sumner alumni have envisioned a mentoring program to reach its current faculty and students, whose socioeconomic profiles and educational backgrounds differ considerably from students during the school's mid-20th century heyday, when Sumner drew from all sectors of St. Louis's Black community. The alumni's involvement can help to ensure that despite the changed conditions, Sumner remains a vital institution and continues to play a vital role in the African-American communities of St. Louis and the nation. I hope the effort takes flight, not only at Sumner but at other similar institutions across the country, and to Sumner High School, I wish it 130+ more years of remarkable service!

Monday, June 13, 2005

Senate Apologizes (Finally) for US Lynching

Almost 40 years after the last officially recorded lynching of an African-American person occurred--and I say "officially recorded," since many lynchings were never recorded, and periodic lynchings and brutal racially motivated murders have continued to occur across the United States up to the present day--and despite the House of Representatives thrice passing resolutions and the urgings of 7 US Presidents, it wasn't until today that the United States Senate finally approved a non-binding resolution that issued a formal apology for the 4,742 recorded lynchings that occurred between the 1880s and the 1960s. Descendants of lynch victims, as well as a nonegenarian survivor, James Cameron, came to the Capitol to share their family histories of lynching, and accepted the resolution.
According to the New York Times, this resolution was the first time in US history that the Senate had ever apologized to African Americans for anything. That is, in 229 years (if you go back to 1776) or 219 (if you pick 1789), despite all that has befallen Black people in the US, the Senate never once before apologized for a damned thing. Better late than never, I suppose--except that instead of a roll call vote, the Senate, taking the cowardly route, used a voice vote, which means that there is no printed record of how the actual Senators actually voted. And the resolution had only 80 co-sponsors, the chief ones being moderate Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and the repellent Republican George Allen of Virginia (he of the Confederate flag and nooses in his office!), though there are 100 Senators. So who were the 20 who didn't feel the need to support this non-binding, grossly overdue, utterly symbolic resolution? I have some ideas...and who took the truly slimy route and voted against it? Unfortunately we may never know.

Tonight on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, correspondent Gwen Ifill spoke with one of the leaders of the apology movement, Doria Dee Johnson, the great-granddaughter of Anthony Crawford (pictured above, F.S. Hays From NAACP files at Library of Congress) of Abbeville, South Carolina, a community leader (president of the Black Masons, founder of a farmer's union and a Black school, member of a federal jury, voter) who was lynched in 1916 after claiming that a white store owner was paying him five cents less (.85) than white farmers. As Johnson, the founder of Anthony Crawford Remembered, struggled through an obvious surge of sorrow to relate the story to Ifill, over 200 whites in Abbeville, after beating, stabbing and shooting Crawford, hanged his body from a tree, then ordered all 13 of his children to abandon their homes and property on penalty of death. Over 100 of his descendants were present at the presentation of the resolution today. Ifill asked Johnson "what difference does [this apology] make?" Johnson had some excellent responses, one of them being that if you didn't do this, "You have blood on your hands."

A necessary symbolic step, like Clinton's apology for slavery, but the rivers and creeks and gulleys, like the mountains and plains from Maine to Florida, Maryland to California, remain incarnadine with the blood of countless Black Americans....

Update: According to Americablog, here are the bloody-handed crew who refused to cosponsor--even after the fact--the symbolic lynching resolution. All but one are Republicans; big surprise! Let's also not forget that these are the people who just put Janet Rogers Brown, a horribly damaged Black woman who equates liberalism (which ended the legal segregation into which she was born!) with "slavery" and called the New Deal America's "socialist revolution" on the DC appellate court. Their contempt for Black people and Americans in general (no, make that humanity in general) knows no bounds....

Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
Robert Bennett (R-UT)
Thad Cochran (R-MS)
Kent Conrad (D-ND)
John Cornyn (R-TX)
Michael Crapo (R-ID)
Michael Enzi (R-WY)
Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
Judd Gregg (R-NH)
Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX)
John Kyl (R-AZ)
Trent Lott (R-MS) -- Big surprise here!
Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)
Richard Shelby (R-AL)
Gordon Smith (R-OR)
John Sununu (R-NH)
Craig Thomas (R-WY)
George Voinovich (R-OH)
+ Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN: he refused a roll call vote!)

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Puerto Rican Day Parade + Hip-Hop Theater Festival + 2 New Fest Films

In 1958 the first Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York occurred, just over half-a-center after Puerto Rico became a U.S. colony as a result of the Spanish-American War; in 1995, this celebration of Puerto Rican heritage and pride became the National Puerto Rican Day Parade. Today marked the 10th anniversary of the national celebratory march, which took place along Fifth Avenue from 44th to 86th Streets and ran from 11 am-6 pm (officially). The parade once again drew one of the largest and most festive crowds of any of New York's summer festivals, with marchers and musical performers from all of New York's boroughs, delegations from the island and islets of Puerto Rico, as well as celebrants from across the City, tri-state area, U.S. and world.
Very obvious this year was the audible dominance of reggaeton/reggetón music and its stars (Ivy Queen, Daddy Yankee, Zion y Lennox, Julio Voltio, Baby Rasta, Adassa, Wisin, etc., and the Afrorican lodestar himself, Tego Calderón) over the more traditional Puerto Rican musical forms, salsa and bomba y plena; even the TV commentators (repeatedly) made note of it. They also noted the increased presence of younger participants, both in the parade itself and in the stands, though they offered no suppositions or explanations for why. I won't either. But it does bode well for the future of this event, which despite some recent problems (including attacks on female attendees several years ago), one of the centerpieces of New York's heritage celebrations. En el espíritu del desfile de hoy, let me add: ¡Viva el Borinken, viva la gente y el orgullo boricua!

Benji Reid
Hearing reggetón today jogged my memory about another event that began yesterday and runs until this upcoming Sunday: The fifth annual Hip-Hop Theater Festival. Taking place in multiple cities this year (San Francisco for 10 days in May, Washington in July, and Chicago in September), the weeklong series of plays and performances hit New York with a "best-of" previous festivals event and a late-night party at Sutra, on the Lower East Side. Other events include a hiphopera, some interesting-looking solo sets, and two world premieres, including Briton Benji Reid's "13 Mics" (pictured at right, courtesy of Hip-Hop Theater Festival) and German Niels "Storm" Robitzky's "Solo for Two." I'll be away so I'll have to miss most of it, but if any readers check it out, do post a reply or direct me to your comments on it.


This weekend I did see two films at New Fest, Kyle Schickner's feature Strange Fruit, and Nicole Conn's documentary little man, which was co-produced by a friend of my partner C.

Strange Fruit was definitely worth catching, despite being very uneven, with an outlandish ending. What I found refreshing were the attempted depiction of one Black gay man's return to his former home in the Deep South (Louisiana's bayou country), the desire to tweak the viewers' plot expectations, and some of the portrayals, particularly the thoroughly handsome Kent Faulcon as William Boyals, the Black, gay, New York-based attorney who heads back to his native town to investigate the lynching on his friend, Kelvin Ayers, and David Raibon as Duane Ayers, Kelvin's straight, paroled brother (both pictured below). What wasn't refreshing was the recourse to stereotypes and clichés, the gaping plot holes and implausibilities, and the moments of (very) bad acting. For whatever reason, the actors depicting the white police officers were especially off-key, as was the young actor who overemoted as Boyals' ex. The bayou setting itself verged a bit too much on a boiled down In the Heat of the Night. (A close friend's date, a brotha who's a native of southern Georgia, said that he found the setting totally unbelievable.) I personally thought that with a few shifts in the plot to tie up some of the unbelievable elements, better direction to tone down the acting (and nail the Louisiana accents), and the elimination of the schmaltzy non-diegetic music, the film would have been much stronger. Still, it's rare to see the characters and scenarios Strange Fruit depicts on screen (down to the floating, rope-pulled walkway needed to reach the gay bar), so even with its serious faults, I'd recommend it.
Faulcon and Raibon
Little man follows the vicissitudes of filmmaker Conn (Clair of the Moon, Cynara) and her partner, political activist Gwen Baba, after they contract with a surrogate mother who turns out to have health problems that result in a severely damaged infant. The documentary skillfully and movingly follows Conn, Baba, their daughter, and the baby boy, Nicholas, as he battles for life over a period of several years. More than once he hovers on the threshold of death, as his body's neuroelectrical system cannot regulate itself and his digestive system in particular falters; his struggles and their effects on Conn and Baba provoke each of them to question their initial aims in the surrogacy, interrogate their personal and shared values, and to ask what constitutes a "decent life" for a child experiencing such intense and continuous suffering. I won't give the ending away, but it is an excellent movie, and one ancillary point it broached for me was the issue of access to quality health care, which millions of Americans lack completely, yet which is so essential to Nicholas's survival. The film unfortunately doesn't press the question, but if these two extraordinary women did not have the resources to fund their son's repeated trips to the hospital, his surgeries, his physical therapy, his necessary medical equipment, and so on, what might the outcome have been? All in all, little man is a superb documentary which I hope, like Strange Fruit, makes it to more theaters and TV (Sundance, Logo, etc.) soon.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Saturday Quote: Manthia Diawara

"For people of African descent, blackness is...a way of being human in the West or in areas under Western domination. It is a compelling performance against the logic of slavery and colonialism by people whose destinies have been inextricably linked to the advancement of the West, and who have therefore to learn the expressive techniques of modernity: writing, music, Christianity, and industrialization in order to become uncolonizable. They have to recuperate the category black from the pathological space reserved for it in the discourse of whiteness, and reinvest it with attributes valorized in modern humanism."
--Manthia Diawara, from "Englishness and Blackness: Cricket as Discourse on Postcolonialism"

Friday, June 10, 2005

Subversion, a particular form of resistance, can take many forms.'s is pretty ingenious and worthwhile, recognizing our national dependence upon cars and roadways, especially highways, and using them as a means to promote dissenting, dissonant, truthful speech.

The site contains several pages of great images, links to similar sites, a cursory examination of the legality of the signage, a blog, an archive, and pointers on other suggested activity, all of which fall under the rubric, which we can never take for granted, especially not in contemporary America, of promoting and exercising our Constitutional right to "free" speech.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Javier Marías's Your Face Tomorrow

One book I'm especially looking forward to reading this summer is the first volume of Spanish writer Javier Marías's trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear (Tu rostro mañana: 1 Fiebre y lanza), which New Directions published earlier this month. Over the last decade the profoundly prolific Marías (1951-) has become one of the most widely translated, read and discussed contemporary Spanish authors, because of his succession of deceptively transparent but delightfully enigmatic, quasi-autobiographical, highly discursive novels, which include All Souls, A Heart So White, Tomorrow in the Battle Think of Me, When I Was Mortal, The Man of Feeling, and the truly Sebaldian Dark Back of Time.
My favorites are All Souls, a fictional account of Marías's sabbatical at Oxford, which manages to movingly evoke (and invoke) an outsider's experiences in that strange, hermetic world and possess a far greater depth than its pages at first reveal, and the disarmingly memoiristic Dark Back of Time, which at first seems to be an analytical exploration of the earlier Oxford book before it dissolves or expands into a far more complex and elusive text about fiction, narration and authorship. The only book of Marías's that I've read--or more like stumbled through--in Spanish is Vidas escritas, a colorful--and fairly easy to read--series of capsuled ruminations on writers such as Dostoyevsky, Kafka, and Faulkner, so I can't speak to the quality of the translations, from all the reviews I've seen, his regular English translator, Margaret Jull Costa, is superb.

Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear on first glance seems to be a departure; it's billed as a kind of spy or detective novel, whose protagonist, Jaime (or Jacques or Jack) Deza, recently separated from his wife, finds himself being recruited for the British secret service. But almost immediately many of Marías's touchstones pop up: the recruiter is none other than a retired Oxford don; the narrator's voice unfolds in ponderous, yet charged serpentine curls; and history (or History), ever present in the previous novels, plays a determined role here. I haven't gotten that far, so I can't say much about how this first book in the trilogy functions on its own, but the reviews suggest that it does hold up quite well, guiding you right into book number two (Dance and Dream), which I also look forward to reading. Marías supposedly is writing the third volume right now.

Being a truly contemporary author, he has a fabulous Website (which is almost completely in Spanish, except for one page with hyperlinks to essays on his writing, interviews and reviews), chock-full of information on his work and life, and best of all, a very chatty blog!

Here are the opening sentences of Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear, which gives a sense of Marías's style and thematic concerns, and the rich vein of possibilities they both hold and discharge:

One should never tell anyone anything or give information or pass on stories or make people remember beings who have never existed or trodden the earth or traversed the world, or who, having done so, are now almost safe in uncertain, one-eyed oblivion.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Remix Hotel 2005 NYC + Haiti Update

Remix HotelAlways so much going on in the naked city! This past weekend, Remix magazine's Remix Hotel held its 2005 three-day total immersion conference for DJs, professional and amateur musicians, and others interested in hands-on access to the latest in electronic music technology and equipment. The gathering included presentations and demos, workshops and master classes, panel discussions, live performances, and parties.

According to the heads up I got from Shocklee Entertainment, Remix Hotel 2005 NYC drew over a thousand attendees, including Chuck D, Prince Paul, Brand Nubian, Pete Rock, Tony Tone, Rich Medina, Needlz, Jeru the Damaja, Jae Millz, Cipha Sounds, Propellerhead, Lil' Cease, and Latasha Natasha Diggs. There are some photos of the event on the Remix Hotel 2005 pages, with more to come.

The next Remix Hotel is scheduled for August 5-7, 2005, in Los Angeles, and another one was originally scheduled for some time this year in Chicago, so if you have any interest, check out the site and register in advance.

HaitiHave you written/called/faxed/blasted your Congressperson concerning the worsening situation in Haiti yet?

Back in March I posted about the ongoing problems there ("Sake pase nan Ayiti?"), so I won't rehash them, but keep in mind that although the mainstream media have aimed their focus on the W administration's nation-building (and destroying) activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, they have almost completely averted their gaze from the crisis the United States and France exacerbated in the oldest independent Black nation in our hemisphere.

Before the coup that exiled Haiti's democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, we were told that he and his Lavalas Famn Party were the main obstacles to a functioning democracy; the intransigent opposition simply would not and could not work with him, and the creeping thuggery, which included murders, abductions, death threats, and so on, was laid at Aristide's doorstep. Yet since Aristide's departure, things have not improved. They have gotten worse. Despite the blandishments of the US's puppet, Gerard LaTortue, political and criminal killings continue unabated, the rebels have not fully disarmed, the UN troops, mostly from Brazil, have maintained only a tenuous peace in parts of the capital, and the majority of Haiti's more than 7 million people continue to suffer, politically and economically.

If this were not bad enough, Haiti's neighbor on Ayiti-Kiskeya, the Dominican Republic, is again expelling Haitian refugees from its territory of late (a state action that occurs periodically, especially when, as now, the DR is suffering its own severe economic downturn). And, according to a Reuters report today, the W administration just suggested that Haiti's illegitimate government buy more weapons to arm its police force, rather than working harder to reserve the political hurdles that have paralyzed the country's government and economy. This is another foreign mess this administration has stoked, and rather than let it continue to pass undiscussed by our own government, please contact your Congressperson and ask her or him to put it on the legislative docket. Millions of peoples' lives hang in the balance.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Book Returns + Fassbinder's Birthday + Bancroft RIP

If you've ever had a book published in sizable numbers (say above 2,500-5,000 copies) by someone other than yourself or a vanity press, which is to say from one of the small independent presses to one of the conglomerates, and if your book made its way into one of the bookstore chains and it wasn't a bestseller--which would characterize the vast majority of books printed and published since Gutenberg--then you probably have dealt with "returns." For the author, returns usually mean a negative number on the royalty statement; after the press has earned back its monetary advance (which might be anywhere from $1,000 to $1 million or more, depending upon the book and author), if there is one (and there usually is one, however modest, for works of fiction and non-fiction of all kinds), the author often will get royalties, even small ones.

However, according to the strange economics of the book business, booksellers can return unsold books to the publisher. Authors get no royalties on these returned books, which publishers often will then sell at heavily discountered prices to "remainder" houses, if they don't pulp them outright. Remaindered books, like used and resold books, provide authors with no royalties, so if the books don't sell and are returned, and if the publishers don't keep the returned books in a warehouse to sell at full price down the road, an increasingly unlikely prospect given the huge volume of books published each year, the author's chance of earning any royalties diminishes to zero. The return system as it stands disincentivizes the chain book stores from keeping books for the extended periods they once did; they simply bring in the new books, ship out the old, and the consumer has to either order the book when she walks in or go the online ordering route.

Overall, the system is a mess, and is getting worse. The consolidation of publishers, bookstores and distributors--which has led to a rise in book prices; a narrowing of content, including a dumbing down of books in general; and the disappearance of independent first-sale bookstores in many cities--along with the overall national decline in reading, draws a grim portrait of the future of book publishing as we've known it. Other options, including just-in-time electronic publishing and books-on-demand, appear to offer some promise, but until they mature, publishing will continue careening towards its demise.

That's my potted discussion of the topic. Here's another, by the Wall Street Journal's Jeffrey Trachtenberg, in the current edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "Quest for best seller means lots of returned books." It's not just a grim portrait, but a grave one, but necessary reading for anyone interested in the current business of books.

Doug Ireland's recently blog pointed out something I'd missed completely: the just passed birthday of the late German playwright, filmmaker-auteur and force of nature, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982). It's hard to capture nowadays the esteem and excitement with which many cinephiles held Fassbinder's movies in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he became one of the leading representatives of a new wave of European, and in particular German, cinema. As late as the early 1990s Fassbinder, whose films represent a particular vein of post-modernism, was also being taught in many film and semiotic studies programs. His idiosyncratic and ironic revival of Sirkian melodrama is especially significant, and is visible in the work of US filmmaker Todd Haines.

Some of Fassbinder's early and mid-period films, like Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970) and Whity (1971), while still fascinating, don't hold up so well in retrospect, but other early films, like his existential drama Katzelmacher (1969), the race-age-class-tinged tragedy Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974, shown above), and the stunningly overwrought The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), as well as his late masterpieces that deal with the Nazi period and its aftermath--The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), Lilli Marlene (1980), Lola (1981), and Veronika Voss (1982), and the magisterial TV version of Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz(1980)--remain significant moments in cinematic art. Unlike most of today's mainstream movies, Fassbinder's films often deal with publicly and privately conflicted (and constrained) characters, usually political, economic, and social (sexual) outsiders and outlaws. They rarely offer the now-expected neat and usually sentimental resolutions (cf. Crash). Frequently the outcome of the plot is tragedy, with elements of dark humor mixed in, so that the movies complicate two common spectator responses, identification and recognition. The low production values of some of the films, their cultural transgressiveness, campy outrageousness and satire, and their warped quotations of prior works have always repelled some viewers, but at their best, as in Maria Braun, which was an international success, Fassbinder's achievement is obvious and lasting.

My introduction to Fassbinder was Querelle (1983), the final film he directed, before he committed suicide, though he had he given himself a little more time, a massive heart attack brought on by years of drug and alcohol abuse and a frenzied pace that would have slain most mortals (he made over 50 films in 20 years) probably was around the corner. Querelle is his highly stylized (and failed) adaptation of Jean Genet's lyrical and perverse inverted-Billy Budd novel. I was still in high school when it briefly appeared in US theaters, and snuck out to the sole moviehouse in my city that showed foreign films to catch it. Although I hadn't read the Genet source novel, I knew he was a homosexual and that the film itself dealt with homosexuality, sailors and murder, a magnetic combination. (I didn't yet know that Fassbinder also was gay and had cast several of his lovers, including the Arab actor El Hedi ben Salem, who later killed himself in prison, and the Afro-German Günther Kaufmann, who frequently played an American soldier, in many of his films). I can't even say I remember anything of that first viewing beyond being awed by the fantastically phallic architecture of Fassbinder's imagined French port of Brest and the incomprehensible storyline, but I saw it several years later on VHS, and became hooked on his work.

The Criterion Collection has issued beautiful versions of Maria Braun, Lola and Veronika Voss, which I recommend, and just a few weeks ago I bought a Criterion supplementary disk featuring an interview with Fassbinder, as well as with his surviving collaborators. Also, in 2000 as a form of homage, French enfant terrible François Ozon (Eight Women, Under the Sand, Criminal Lovers) made a worthwhile film of Fassbinder's stage play Water Drops On Burning Rocks.


Finally, a very brief note of tribute to Bronx native Anne Bancroft (1931-2005), a superb film and stage actor who also produced and directed films. Although her most memorable performance was as the drunken seductress Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967) ("Do you want me to seduce you?"), she set a high standard in a number of other roles over the years, including in her Academy Award-winning turn as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker (1962), as the conflicted ballerina in The Turning Point (1977), as the knowing Mother Superior in Agnes of God (1985), and as Harvey Fierstein's loving but meshugah mother in Torch Song Trilogy (1988).

One film role of hers I always enjoyed that I haven't (yet) seen mentioned in many of the tributes is 84 Charing Cross Road(1987), in which she plays (and slightly overplays, as she sometimes did) American book lover Helen Hanff, who initiates a romance via letters with a character played Anthony Hopkins. It's a charming film, if not a great one, and Bancroft makes it worth watching. (It even got me to visit some the used bookstores on Charing Cross Road, as C. will attest.)