Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Hurricane Katrina Catastrophe (or on "looting")

In the last few days, friends and correspondents have pointed out to me or I've come across images and commentary that juxtapose images and descriptions of some of the people in the Hurricane Katrina-affected regions (White) as "finding" things, while depicting others (Black) as "looting." (A longer discussion of this can be found on BoingBoing.) I actually wrote CNN the other night to ask that they stop showing an endless loop of gleeful looters, and in my message also praised Louisiana's Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, who, under questioning by CNN's Rita Cosby, kept her cool and suggested that the breathless Cosby and viewers consider the horrible conditions the hurricane and levee breaks had left behind, rather than rush to judgment about the survivors' actions.
Loot vs. Find
The mainstream media's racism should surprise no one; they have always been grossly racist, sexist and classist, and they're not about to change now, especially when dealing with a catastrophic event that has primarily devastated Black and poor people. Nor should anyone be surprised that many--but not all--in the media seem to have missed the basic issue: how to allocate scarce and necessary resources at such a critical time, and in a place in which all order has collapsed, creating a truly Hobbesian scenario. What are people to do? Some obviously are taking the worst route.

I should add that in some cases, media reports about "finding," "looting" and other forms of distribution conflict; while some people are outright stealing things that do not meet the description of basic necessities (foodstuffs, clean water, dry and clean clothes and shoes, medicine, hygienic products, etc.), I have seen accounts of some store owners actually distributing their goods, and that the declaration of martial law allows city officials, I believe, to take and distribute private goods for their own purposes. Also, from what I've read and seen, the vast majority of people are ASSISTING each other at a time of tremendous fear and desparation. They are not looting or stealing or killing or even acting out, but trying to help each other and figure out ways to get out of what just a week ago was one of the most beautiful cities in the United States but what is now "New Atlantis."

But back to the "looting": I'm not excusing or condoning it, but here are some additional thoughts on the issue:

First, since many of the Black people (and many of the Whites, Latinos, and everyone else at this point who've suffered the hurricane's devastation) depicted looting are jobless, penniless, homeless, hungry, facing an even more uncertain than before, and since the system that has always neglected them had completely broken down, and since they've been distrustful of the authorities and the system anyway, why wouldn't some of them act out? It's become obvious that at the state and federal level, no one seems to have set up real, readily realizable contingency plans in the event that Hurricane Katrina (or a similar storm) hit the city. The President of the United States could not be bothered to leave his vacation when two states were hit, and then yesterday spoke so casually and indifferently (the idiot actually GRINNED!) that he made it clear he didn't give a damn. Maybe some of the "looters" are thinking, now is their one chance to get as much they've ever wanted, whether or not they enter into short-term or long-term considerations, such as that they might not be able to take this stuff anywhere. They live in society where some people have everything and they have nothing (isn't a quarter of New Orleans' population living below the poverty level?), and now the system that maintains that society has utterly broken down, so I'm not surprised that some of them would take advantage of it.

Second, why wouldn't they steal guns to commandeer a car or truck or helicopter or boat to get out of there now that the city has turned into a giant toxic vat? To get food and water? Why wouldn't some try to punish the authorities, whom they might feel are not taking sufficient account of their needs and interests? This is not to condone their actions, but to point out why people might be acting as they are. Also, why wouldn't some take electronic equipment like TVs and DVD players and Game Boys that they thought they might sell in Arkansas or Texas or Tennessee or somewhere else, for food, or clothes, or gas? Why wouldn't they take things that have some resale value, especially now that they have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING? Since the pre-existing economic system, on whose margins they lived prior to the hurricane's hit, has completely broken down, why wouldn't they devise their own system, which might include bartering to survive?

Third, I saw a CNN correspondent (Martin Savidge?) enter one of the stores that was being "looted." He spoke with a Black policewoman who was trying on shoes and not stopping the looters. The policewoman seemed slightly embarassed, queried Savidge about why he was there, and then continued with what she was doing. Though packing a gun, she was making no effort to stop anyone from what they were doing. (There appeared to be White and Latino people roaming through the aisles as well.) When Savidge told a young brotha that the shorts he'd grabbed--a pinkish-purple--were a color that didn't suit him, the boy threw them down and kept on with searching for goods. What struck me was how many people were calmly and coolly--not frantically--pushing carts around as if they were shopping under normal circumstances. I thought, why hasn't anyone in the media pointed out that for millions of people in our hyperconsumerist society shopping, among its other functions (economic, social, etc.), also serves as a form of psychological therapy and entertainment, and that some of these "looters" may be doing the very thing we're always and endlessly encouraged to do, to consume, but that they may be doing it for therapeutic reasons, especially in the face of such a terrible trauma? Money or no money, the people I saw seemed to be relaxed and actually enjoying themselves.

All in all, the situation in New Orleans and the surrounding area, as well as along the Mississippi gulf area, looks extremely grave to me; as of last night in New Orleans there still numerous people waiting on their roofs, 1500 people trapped in a hospital, countless sick and elderly people who didn't have medicine and were waiting to be rescued. Dead bodies were floating in the water. In coast Mississippi many people were still waiting for rides to get out, waiting for food, water,medicine, some kind of aid. Bodies might still be trapped under the rubble of homes in Gulfport and Biloxi. WHERE ARE THE NATIONAL GUARD and SEARCH AND RESCUE TEAMS???

I really hope that the state and federal authorities get it together, but I have heard New Orleans' mayor express repeated frustration about the failure of the Army Corp of Engineers to begin plugging the levee breaches as he'd asked right away, and Louisiana's governor seemed not to be able to coordinate things with the federal authorities. I also heard that Bush had been planning to phase out FEMA and had slashed New Orleans's levee restoration budget by millions of dollars a few years ago to give out tax cuts (mostly to the rich) and fund his Iraq War. When are people going to wake up about this man and his disastrous domestic and international policies? He's managed even to make the effects of a natural calamity even worse....

One personal note: several years ago I worked closely with a number of faculty members at and visited the campuses of Dillard University and Xavier University of Louisiana, two of the historically Black universities located in New Orleans. I checked the Websites of both, but unlike Tulane University, neither was loading as of tonight. I sincerely hope neither campus has been too severely damaged, and that all of their students, faculty and staff have been able to get out of the city safely.

(Update: I have to note with sorrow that Dillard University is flooded, though a friend has sent word that some of the people I knew who teach there were able to evacuate in time. Another friend has forwarded a message saying that numerous famous New Orleans musicians, including 76-year-old Fats Domino and his wife, soul singer Irma Thomas and arranger and lyricist Allen Toussaint have not been heard from in the last few days.)


For those who want to help, you can send money to the American Red Cross directly via this secure contribution page or calling them at 1-800-HELP-NOW.

For those who can contribute housing or would like to search for housing for the Hurricane Katrina refugees, please go to's Hurricane Housing page.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Amy Alexander on Black Mass Market Idea Mags

In a Sunday, August 28, 2005 Washington Post column, "Not on My Coffee Table," author and former editor Amy Alexander poses a question I've been mulling for some time: where are the contemporary Black idea magazines? By which she and I both mean, where are the mass-market magazines that present discussions of ideas and issues that might be relevant to Black Americans written by Black Americans (and other Black people)?
Alexander begins by talking about the tributes accorded to publishing visionary John H. Johnson when he passed away last month. She says:

Johnson's death got me thinking about the void that exists in the world of black-oriented publishing these days. There's the feel-good, middle-class black mirror most vividly embodied by Ebony and Jet, and the post-modern, hyper-acquisitive "bling" aesthetic found in hip-hop magazines such as Vibe and XXL. But there's no idea-driven publication aimed at black Americans -- at least none that has achieved equivalent success.

She considers what's sitting on her coffee table and what isn't. (Hint: neither the Johnson publications nor the bling ones are, though the former once did.) Alexander then gives some background history about herself and about Black mass magazines in general, and bemoans the fact that since Emerge went off the market a few years ago, no Black idea-driven magazines have appeared to replace it. (I subscribed to Emerge for a little while.) She also points out that, for which she once wrote, is now offline as well, having been sold to the highest bidder, who didn't see enough dollars in it and unsurprisingly also didn't see its social, political or cultural indispensibility. (I had an e-mail account till it was taken offline.)

EmergeAlexander concludes her article with the following statements: "Yet, as we experienced with the death of, not even in the comparatively wide-open, low-overhead realm of the Internet has a serious black-oriented publication managed to find broad commercial success. So I ponder the spot once occupied by Ebony on the coffee table and realize it speaks volumes about me, about black Americans and about Americans in general." I think she's extrapolating a bit too much from her own experience, but she makes a good point: where are the magazines to fill the void left by the loss not of Ebony on her table, but of Emerge from the newsstands? Alexander mentions the NAACP's The Crisis, which despite its miniscule readership could potentially reach far more people, but it is affiliated with a private organization. Another publication that comes to mind is American Visions, which has excellent arts coverage but is seen by relatively few people.

American VisionsAre the potential Black middle class subscribers to such a publication Alexander highlights too focused on other things, too fragmented in their interests, too lacking in the kinds of racial solidarity that once drew their predecessors to Johnson's publications, too uninterested in an idea-driven periodical given all the other media out there, or is it that that the right publication or publications have yet to appear? What about poor and working-class readers? Might not such publication serve as a intellectual bridge between divergent classes? What would such a publication look like? What sorts of issues would it cover? How fully and deeply would it engage with ideas qua ideas, and would it cover the political and ideological spectrum or, like Emerge, lean toward the left? What would constitute a Black intellectual mainstream nowadays? Is this mainstream conterminous with the Black bourgeoisie Alexander describes (many Black intellectuals are members of this bourgeoisie.) Would traditional ideological terms apply?

Could this new publication get away with not celebrating celebrity, which is the main focus of so many American publications, and the global media in general? (Focusing on celebrities means not focusing on the news, which of course might get people thinking and talking....) Would it only focus on Blacks in the US, or would it range more widely to cover Africans in African and throughout the Diaspora? Some issues it could start with: Black troops in Iraq and the lack of Black support for W's war in general, Hurricane Katrina's devastation not only of Black lives but of Black history and material culture in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf coast, global Black women's issues, the Black American male job crisis, the situation in Darfur, the political and social turmoil in Haiti, the situation of Black pro-democracy dissenters and Assata Shakur in Castro's Cuba, and on and on. Would it be mostly journalistic, or would it also include the arts, fine and popular? So many questions...who's going to step and create a periodical that might address some--or many--of them?

Monday, August 29, 2005

Houellebecq's New Novel + Nabokov's Lolita + Hurricane Katrina

HouellebecqMy DR impressions post last week mentioned Michel Houellebecq (well'-beck'), who over the past decade has become not only one of the major voices in French literature, but also one of the most controversial the global literary marketplace. Houellebecq first gained attention in the English-speaking world for his award-winning 1998 dystopic novel The Elementary Particles (published as Atomised by in the UK, Les particules élémentaires in French). In this nihilistic, yet enthralling work, Houellebecq crafted a compelling fictional carapace around his experiences growing up during the culturally and politically transitional period of late-1960s and early 1970s France. Splitting himself into two characters, the Djerzinski half-brothers Michel, an asexual geneticist, and Bruno, a sadsack laborer, Houellebecq produced a bleak, intertwining narrative of their lives, told through the framing device of a narrative view set retrospectively 50 years in the future, that relentlessly assailed the liberal ethos of his parents' generation. Along the way, and utilizing an ironic, magnetic anti-style laced with philosophical musings and nodes of factlets, he managed to trash the French society and its politics, immigrants, Blacks, sex workers, White European women, homosexuals, and, one might argue convincingly, much of the culture of contemporary European liberal democratic societies in general. Michel's discovery of a method to reproduce the human species without sexual reproduction through cloning, along with Bruno's mental breakdown and institutionalization, represented the apotheosis of Houellebecq's negative perspective.

Houellebecq's viewpoint, however, isn't conservative in the traditional sense, or even classically liberal, by which I mean that he isn't calling for a return to the France of pre-1968 or for responsible and restrained and reduced state power; instead, it is a kind of pessimistic, post-Schopenhaurian postmodernism--though not Luddite or anti-technological--in that he suggests that contemporary liberalism and its conservative reflections have left us with few options, most of them bad and ultimately anti-humanist or post-human(ist). Only something cataclysmic, some destructive and possibly purifying or at least transhuman force--though not religion--will work in the end, even if humankind as we know it is gone. Houellebecq follows in the tradition of right-wing authors and predecessors such as Louis-Fernand Céline and Drieu la Rochelle, though without their virulent anti-Semitism; instead, he trains his crosshairs on France's and Europe's largest minorities, while also not forgetting to savage White people. He thus succeeds in being both avant-garde (or perhaps outre-garde) in terms of his message and his formal approach, with its critique of realism, and arrière-garde, in his pessimism and teleology. In addition, Houellebecq larded the book with frank sexual depictions verging on the pornographic, or shading into them, which generated considerable criticism in France; the sex scenes also contributed to hearty sales. The novel, which continues to fascinate me for a number of reasons, later won the Prix Novembre; four years later, it received the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

He followed the success--and succès de scandale--of Elementary Particles with Platform (Plateform, 2001), a longer, less artful, even more dyspeptic novel whose plot centers on European sex tourism in Asia, while also including in its plotline a critique of the very type of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism that would erupt on September 11. In Platform, which ranges in its settings from urban and rural France to Thailand, the author stepped up his critiques of the French bureaucratic state, contemporary society, and male-female sexual relations, though the narrative does including a moving, romantic plot line which, as par for the course, ends in tragedy. Houellebecq's sexual depictions in this novel were, at least in my opinion, even more explicit than in the previous one, or in his first, the 1994 narrative run-through for the subsequent works, Whatever (Extension du domaine de la lutte), while his melding of expositions and philosophical ruminations with the narrative line was far more creaky than in the prior novel. Like Elementary Particles, the text both disturbed and fascinated me, to a large degree because of Houellebecq's ability to encompass all of his troubling enthusiasms within the larger frame of an engaging contemporary work of fiction. The novel didn't simply draw a larger readership; published extracts of it, along with an offensive interview in Lire, led France's Human Rights League, the Saudi World Islamic league, and mosques in France, to bring charges of insulting Islamic and provoking racial hatred against him. A French three-judge panel, however, acquitted him. (Shortly before publishing Platform, he issued Lanzarote, a flimsy, repellant kernel of the story that later became Platform, set in Spain, with turgid descriptions of a Houellebecquian protagonist engaging in a threesome with lesbians, and beautiful photographs of the islands' moon-like topography.)

Since the controversies surrounding Platform, Houellebecq has seen the translation and publication in English of one of his earliest books, HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, an idiosyncratic study of the American horror writing H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), whose racism and anti-ethnic fervor, classism and misogyny unsurprisingly struck a chord with the French author. Clamor had been rising, nevertheless, for his next novel, which will soon appear under the English title The Possibility of an Island (La possibilité d'une île), and is provoking a critical ruckus. In fact, according to the Independent, one of France's major critics, French Academy member and Le Figaro literary critic Angelo Rinaldi, preposterously claimed to have found a marked up galley of the text on a park bench in Eastern Paris. He pronounced the 488-page novel "ridiculous," a "damp squib," that he could imagine nothing more "arid, impoverished and obscure," and went on to say that "luck often comes to the aid of a journalist. On this occasion, it may have given [me] a scoop but it did not give me much happiness." The Independent piece ultimately questions whether Rinaldi wasn't party to a clever PR stunt, since Houellebecq's publisher Fayard had severely restricted journalists' access to the new work. In any event, his review has stoked more controversy and potentially higher sales in the new work.

Meanwhile in Der Spiegel, Roman Leick, in his piece "Can Humans Survive without Sex?" offers another take, noting in its laudatory overview-review that it takes only three pages for Houellebecq to get to the sex:

It doesn't take him long to get to his anatomical point; it only takes three pages and about 50 lines for the vagina to make its first appearance. Michel Houellebecq, the sharp-tongued observer of current reality, the harbinger of middle-class misery, the dispassionate witness to the decline of postmodern society, is in his obsessive element: the female gender as the focal point of a life that is otherwise nothing but an arduous journey that offers no particularly convincing reason to be completed.

Der Spiegel also provides a run-down of the plot, which utilizes the science fiction genre to tell another bleak tale of human and post-human interaction. Global catastrophes, religious fanaticism, suicide, ageism and misogyny, and so forth all supposedly make their appearance, with the futuristic world depicted as one in which clones have achieved a condition of sexless, electronically-mediated rationalism, which in Houellebecq's view, as opposed to a Platonic or neo-Kantian one, spells only "monotony, the routine of life interrupted only by sporadic exchanges of thoughts, leads to sadness, melancholy and apathy." The novel ends in a quasi-humanistic, romantic moment, which might point to the fact that for all his misanthropy, there is another side to Houellebecq; rather than dispassion, somewhere inside lies the wellspring for the lamentations of our contemporary world that underscore his texts. Even among the clones, this review seems to assert, Houellebecq holds out a vision of hope. Or does he?

The English version of The Possibility of an Island arrives in British bookstores in November. I'll be reading it as soon as the university's library makes it available.

NabokovSpeaking of controversial, enduringly provocative texts, the Boston Globe notes that this is the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest and most disturbing novels written in English, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, which was published in "two pale green volumes" from Maurice Girodias's Paris-based Olympia Press in September 1955. The Globe piece, "The Seduction: At 50, Nabokov's Lolita Still Seduced--and Disturbs," by Harvard scholar Leland de la Durantaye, details the history and reception of the work, and Nabokov's personal thoughts about it.

Nabokov saw Humbert Humbert, the "nympheleptic" protagonist, as a "scoundrel" and yet not, de la Durantaye tells us, but ironically as a profoundly "moral man" at the end. The parallel tracks of Humbert Humbert's psyche, of his consciousness, which Nabokov mirrors in his protagonist's name itself, become clearer as the novel proceeds. More importantly, de la Durantaye makes the argument that it is precisely Nabokov's rhetorical gifts--his utterly convincing excesses--in this novel, that provide the work's true moral and ethical statement. I'm not sure I agree, or rather, I'm not sure this either fully borne out by the work itself or enough, but it's an interesting argument, and the book, as de la Durantaye says, remains both beguilingly seductive and disturbing.

My thoughts and prayers are with the residents of southeastern Louisiana and coastal Mississippi and Alabama, who've been hit by one of the worst storms, Hurricane Katrina, in recent memory. Early reports suggest that while the storm's strength waned before it hit land, and though it curved eastward, avoiding direct impact on the low-lying city of New Orleans, it still wreaked tremendous damage. Huge swaths of the city and the coastal areas appear to be underwater, since some of its levees broke, and lacking electricity. The 145 mph winds, which made this a Category 4 storm, tore apart or shaved the roofs and sides off many buildings (including puncturing and stripping part of the Louisiana Superdome's roof), strewed debris, from trash to cars and boats, and felled trees, powerlines, and out in the gulf oil rigs. I would imagine that the three states alone are facing close to $10 billion in losses, but the human costs really are incalculable. Unfortunately too, Hurricane Katrina churns on, leaving its awful trail of destruction.

One of the things I've been thinking about repeatedly is the lack of options for the poor during catastrophic events like this. Although the Louisiana Superdome provided a large-scale lee for thousands of New Orleanians, what options were there for the rest of those who didn't have a place to go, or for people outside the city and in the nearby rural and littoral regions if they couldn't afford to hop in a car or on a bus and flee to the northwest? What about those shut in their homes, the homeless, including elderly residents who might not have friends or family to assist them, and other indigent people like runaways, the impoverished mentally ill, and drug addicts who didn't hear and couldn't heed New Orleans mayor C. Ray Nagin's call to evacuate the city or even head to the Superdome, which in any case can hold about 70,000 people? Were and are there standing emergency plans for them? In general, do most municipalities, in their emergency planning scenarios, take into account the needs of their most vulnerable residents? Do they even care? Does anyone know if there have been inquiries or studies into this?

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Sunday Quote: Pratibha Parmar

Parmar Writing has meant exposing myself, as well as grappling with theories that might enable a different kind of political discourse of identity; it has meant engaging critically with the categories of self-enunciation which many of us, as activists and theorists in the late black women's movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s, had employed. Then I spoke and wrote from a position of marginality and resistance, but always strengthened by the collective consciousness of ourselves as black women, as feminists and as lesbians (albeit a small minority). Today...I still inhabit that position of marginality and resistance but in the absence of that collective force which momentarily empowered many of us and gave us the "power of speech."
--Filmmaker, critic and activist Pratibha Parmar, "Black Feminism: the Politics of Articulation," in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference (Jonathan Rutherford, ed., London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990).

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Rashawn Brazell Fundraiser at Luke & Leroy's

Tomorrow, the Rashawn Brazell Collective is hosting a fundraiser at Luke & Leroy's to honor Brazell's life and death, and raise money for the Rashawn Brazell Memorial Scholarship.

As Basquiat_in_Brooklyn says on his site, "Between 6pm and midnight Luke and Leroy, one of Rashawn's favorite places to party, will proudly host "Brighter Days," the official launch party for the Rashawn Brazell Memorial Scholarship. The requested donation is a mere ten dollars, every cent of which will be used to support the college education of a New York City student committed to the fight against racism, sexism and homophobia."

You can find more information on the Rashawn Brazell Collective on the Larry Lyons Experience site, or at its Yahoo! site, here.

Brazell Event

Friday, August 26, 2005

August Wilson: "I'm ready" + Dwight Gooden's latest tumble

WilsonToday I received several very sad e-mails about August Wilson, the acclaimed 60-year-old playwright and poet, whose 10-play "Pittsburgh Cycle" of African-American life in the 20th century represents one of the greatest achievements in American and Black American dramatic literature. Each of the messages mentioned that Wilson is dying of pancreatic cancer, and may only have a short time left.

According to Christopher Rawson's article in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Playwright Wilson says he's dying," the author's doctors discovered his illness in June and ordered immediate intensive treatment. Unfortunately the cancer is so advanced that Wilson's doctors told him probably had only three to five months left. Just before he received his prognosis, Wilson had just completed a rewrite of his most recent play, Radio Golf. Set in 1997, Radio Golf is the last in the cycle and deals with real estate developers seeking to sell off land belonging to Aunt Esther, one of Wilson's recurring characters and cultural touchstones. The play premiered in April at the Yale Repertory Theater, and is playing now in a new production, to end in mid-September, at Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum. Wilson is so ill, however, that he's had to miss rehearsals for the new production, the first time he's had to do so in his career.
A native of Pittsburgh, where nine of his plays are set and longtime resident of Seattle, Wilson has received the highest praise for two particularly memorable dramas: Fences, an unforgettable generational story of memory and regret that had a celebrated run on Broadway, starred actor James Earl Jones and received a raft of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and my favorite, the lyrical Depression-era drama The Piano Lesson, which received the same award three years later in 1990. Other notable plays include Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, and Jitney. Like Radio Golf, all of these dramas are part of the ten-play series that focuses collectively on African-American life in the 20th century.

Each play focuses on a different decade, and all combine historical references, heightened poetic language and vernacular speech, realistic and symbolic dramaturgy, and larger-than-life characters, to varying degrees of effectiveness. All are also grounded in the rich, material aspects of Black American experience, especially Black music. Aesthetically, the works follow in the long tradition of mainstream American dramatic literature, showing the influences of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Lorraine Hansberry, while also incorporating supernatural elements and subcurrents of the polemical discourse of Black drama that emerged in the works of playwrights like Ed Bullins, Woodie King, and Amiri Baraka. Chicago Tribune critic Lawrence Bommer has written that Wilson has "created the most complete cultural chronicle since Balzac wrote his vast Human Comedy, an artistic whole that has grown even greater than its prize-winning parts." Wilson developed and premiered a number of his plays of the 1980s at the Yale Repertory Theater in conjunction with the outstanding director and former dean of Yale Drama School Lloyd Richards.

Wilson is the most honored living Black playwright and one of the most celebrated living American dramatists. In addition to his Pulitzer Prizes, he has received Tony Award nominations for all of his plays appearing on Broadway and the award itself for Fences, an Olivier Award, seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, Guggenheim fellowships, a National Humanities Medal, and the 2003 Heinz Award in Arts and Humanities. I'm not sure how well known he is outside the United States, though the highly lauded young Black British playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah has cited Wilson as a major influence.

Throughout his career Wilson has been a stalwart supporter of numerous arts institutions and organizations, including small, community-based programs like the Cave Canem Black poets' workshops. He's also been an outspoken critic and activist for Black theater, his aesthetic vision, more so than his aesthetic practice, drawing upon political notions of an independent and celebratory Black Art that became dominant in the late 1960s and early 1970s. More than once he has challenged the inflammatory and dismissive statements of former Harvard professor, American Repertory Theater director and New Republic critic Robert Brustein, who has repeated criticized Wilson's plays on aesthetical and ideological grounds, and characterized what he's called Wilson's position of "victimization." The two engaged in a famously contentious debate, moderated by playwright, actor and professor Anna Deveare Smith, in 1997 at New York's Town Hall.

As he works against the clock on a range of projects, Wilson told the Post-Gazette, "It's not like poker, you can't throw your hand in...I've lived a blessed life. I'm ready." I will be praying for him, and urge you to offer up good thoughts and wishes for him and his family.

Doc Gooden
At the end of my freshman year of college, a young pitcher emerged to turn the world of major league baseball upside down. His name was Dwight Gooden, he pitched for the New York Mets, and for a season, he made me forget that the National League team I followed, the St. Louis Cardinals, had stumbled to third place in their division after winning a thrilling World Series the previous year. That spring, summer and fall of 1984, the 19-year-old Gooden electrified fans like me with his dazzling arsenal, posting a 17-9 won-loss record with 276 strikeouts in 218.3 innings, 7 complete games, 3 shutouts, and a 2.60 ERA. At the end of the season, he was named National League Rookie of the Year, and it was evident that the Mets had found the successor to their first great hurler, Hall of Famer Tom Seaver. As if Gooden's gifts weren't enough, in the outfield the Mets fielded one of the league's other great young superstar, homerun hitter and 1983 NL Rookie of the Year Darryl Strawberry.

The next year, Gooden, who earned the name "Doctor K" and then just "Doc Gooden," took his talent and skills to the next level, earning the rare Triple Crown of pitching, finishing with the best record, a remarkable 24-4, the most strikeouts, 268, and the lowest ERA, a miniscule 1.53. He also threw 16 complete games and 8 shutouts (the Cardinals' John Tudor incredibly beat him in this category by throwing 10!), inconceivable numbers for today's starters. His first two years were so extraordinary it seemed that would dominate the league for decades to come. In 1986, Gooden, who again had an excellent season, was the centerpiece of an amazing team that won 108 games and the NL pennant, and that went on to defeat the Boston Red Sox in one of the most iconic World Series ever played; in Game 6, Red Sox first baseman Billy Buckner erred and let Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson's grounder skip through his legs, allowing Mets third baseman Ray Knight to score the game-winning run. That proved to be the turning point, and the Mets took the league trophy.

By 1991, at the age of 26, his stats were on the decline. (Strawberry's too fell off.) A few years later, he had moved on to the Yankees, and then to Cleveland, before final stints with Houston, Tampa Bay, and, for an eyeblink, the Yankees again. By the end of 2000, he was no longer on anyone's major league roster and what had begun as a Hall of Fame-caliber career ended without fanfare, as he retired with a 194-112 record and an 3.51 ERA. By then, it was clear that drugs had taken a heavy toll on Gooden's gifts. In 1994, while still with the Mets, he was suspended for 60 days in 1994 for testing positive for cocaine, and again tested positive for cocaine again while on suspension, which led the league to bar him from pitching for the entire 1995 season. Like Strawberry, success, the demands of carrying a team, peer and societal pressures, and great wealth had destroyed him; he'd started taking drugs in the late 1980s as his star soared, and, as recent events sadly testify, he's never recovered.

Today Gooden appeared in court, his mother at his side, having surrendered after going missing for four days following his flight from police after a DUI stop. Mitch Stacy, in an AP article on Yahoo! News describes him as looking "gaunt," which the TV images of him confirmed. Actually, he looked weary and ill. He is to be jailed without bail until October, and can enter a substance-abuse facility if a bed becomes available. In March of this year, he was arrested and charged with hitting his girlfriend in the face during a quarrel. Yahoo! points out that in 2002, "Gooden was arrested by Tampa police...on a drunken driving charge, but later pleaded guilty to reckless driving and received a year's probation" (see photo below).
Gooden Mug Shot
The problems don't end with Gooden, though; his 19-year-old son, Dwight Gooden, Jr., is also in jail after violating his probation on a cocaine possession conviction, and he faces additional charges police claimed to have found marijuana and bullets in his car as he was parked outside a nightclub. Gooden's nephew, Yankees star outfielder Gary Sheffield, publicly commented the other day that there was nothing the family could do for Gooden at this point. Today he said he would "pray that he will seek the help he so desperately needs."

It's heartbreaking to see what has happened to Dwight Gooden, who obviously has serious personal problems that must be addressed. I sincerely hope both he and his son will get the help his nephew mentioned.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

CA Poet Laureate Al Young + Free the Slaves

YoungToday's Los Angeles Times features an article by staff writer Scott Martelle on new California Poet Laureate Al Young, entitled "Bringing poetic works to the people." In it, Martelle offers a fine profile and overview of Young's past and initial efforts in his post. (I met Young years ago, and thought he was a lovely, generous person; Californians are incredibly lucky to have him in this position.)

Young, who emerged as one of the premiere poets in the Black American literary tradition in during the 1960s and early 1970s, talks about his aims as the Golden State's official champion for the oldest literary art form. These include bringing poetry back into the public and popular discourse, in part through the medium some have argued poses the greatest threat to reading and literature: online technology. Electronic technologies, Martelle states, have "atomized" us, and Young sees one of his primary roles as using "the distilled purity of poetry to breach walls of isolation." One concrete plan is to develop an electronic coffeehouse that will be accessible to California's poets and poetry enthusiasts.

I have some issues with the notion that it is mainly technology that has caused social atomization, and that poetry of any sort is "pure"--distilled linguistic expression the best of it may be--but Young's Kantian view of poetry as a potentially universal social and aesthetic connective is something I do agree with, and I agree with his larger concept of the necessity and indispensibility of art. As anthropologist and aesthetician Ellen Dissayanake has argued, what we term "art" in the West, in at least some of its modes of expression, representation and practice, has existed in every culture and society on earth, even if those societies have no explicit name for it. In so many ways it's essential to human life and experience.

I also agree with his claims that at its best, "poetry is important...because it freshens the language of the mind, the attitude of the mind toward language." Our public discourse and skepticism about official uses and abuses of language have degenerated sharply over the last half century, and are perhaps at their nadir today. Young sees poetry, and literature in general, as one sort of corrective, and intends to plant and cultivate it in the consciousnesses of Californians with the hope that an appreciation for and critical sense of language's power, its possibilities, will take root there. This is especially important for young people; though appointed by Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger after his predecessor and fellow Black poet Quincy Troupe had to resign because of a credentials snafu, the progressive Young plans to use his post to advocate directly to the people and their legislative representatives for increased funding for the arts, especially as part of the educational system. This is something that all artists, especially those in positions of power and influence, should make a regular practice.

One of my favorite quotes from the piece is this statement he offers to the audience during one of his first official appearances as Poet Laureate, at the California State Fair in Sacramento: "You're not remembered for your armies or your navies…. You're remembered for your music and for your stories. For your literature. For your dance. For your film. For your painting. For your great art. That is what ennobles a society." Ennobles, enriches, enlightens--art can, at its best, do all of these things, and more.

Back in June, I received a reply from Jacob Patton to an earlier May post on a Forced Labor conference at MIT, but only recently came across it. I don't know Patton, but his reply linked to his employer, a fascinating organization called Free the Slaves, whose mission, simply put, "is dedicated to ending slavery worldwide." Among the organization's many activities to achieve this goal across the world are working with grassroots anti-slavery, partner, organizations; raising public awareness through a range of media resources and presentations; promoting slave-free global trade; educating policy-makers; and conducing research on modern slavery.

On the organization's site you can find basic information on slavery today, including field reports on slavery and forced labor in San Diego, southwest Florida, and Northern India, and testimonials by former slaves like anti-slavery activist and former Mauretanian bondswoman Salma (pictured above, courtesy of Free the Slaves). They also post up-to-date news about their projects and efforts, and have an online action form.

Looking through the site I learned that Patton is the Director of Outreach and Technology, so I thank him for contacting me and alerting me to the work his organization is doing, and hope all J's Theater readers will check it out.

Today I turned on the registered-only function for the comment section of the blog because of several recent anonymous spam posts. It also appears that spammers have set up dummy blogs on Blogger as well, but it seems easier, at least for now, to control their posts to this site rather than allowing bots to fill up the commentary box. When this blog again flies under the spam radar (maybe it was was highlighted by Blogger or some other service), I'll allow anonymous posting.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Air America's Springer on the Radio

One of the benefits of being back home in the Garden State for most of the summer is that I can hear most of Air America Radio's programs on WLIB 1190 AM (yes, I acknowledge that they pushed many community-oriented programs off the air), which is to say, directly on the radio, as opposed to having to stream them on my computer, which I've had to do in Chicago. (Once upon a time Air America was broadcasting in Chicago too, but financial problems ended their relationship with the AM station there.) Air America, like Pacifica, offers a version of what might pass for semi-progressive radio; though the intellectual content is often far below what Gretchen Helfrich regularly provides on WBZ's "Odyssey," and the general format of the programs follows the standard talk-radio format, rather than innovating to transform what progressive radio might be (yes, I know, they have to meet payroll), most of the Air America programs are a bit more to the left--though far from Leftist in any historical or globally understood sense--than most of what can be found on NPR or many other non-right-wing stations. It is "left" in the current American sense, which means in opposition to the ultraconservatism, neoconservatism and theocratism that pass for rightist politics and ideology nowadays.
Al Franken
Initially I listened to every program, but quickly found the Rachel Maddow-Liz Winstead-Chuck D. morning troika not especially interesting or informed (Chuck D. never had enough to say, unfortunately), and soon stopped listening to any talk programs outside the 10 am-4 pm window (too much critical chatter makes one sour). Maddow now has an early-morning gig that I miss (because I'm not up to catch it.) My window has pretty much left me with Al Franken's droll, often insightful, periodically soporific duet with Liz Lanpher (I occasionally find myself wanting to scream, "Spit the damn word out, Al, just say it, for Chrissakes!" though I love his Henry Kissinger and Rush Limblob impressions and his "truth" fixation), and Randi Rhodes's late afternoon rant-fest, which usually touches upon the major news topics of the day and includes Rhodes's comic and often antagonist exchanges with allies and supporters, as well as with the brazen right-wingers who usually are able to cite the Republican National Committee's talking points as if reciting a loyalty pledge.

My current favorite among the meager offerings, however, is Jerry Springer's late morning chatfest, "Springer on the Radio." At first I was annoyed that instead of a program hosted by a knowledgeable, progressive person of color Air America, in typical American liberal fashion, went out and found a ratings-guaranteeing White brand-name celebrity (please don't get me started on Janine Garofalo, who for whatever reason makes my flesh crawl), but Springer usually manages to demonstrate some of the traits he must have drawn upon to gain him electoral office; he can be thoughtful, witty, keen, adversarial, pragmatic, meshugenah, incisive, nebbishy, and equivocal. As radio-Springer, "The Voice of Middle America," he regularly shows a few facets of his persona that he rarely reveals on the outrageous spectacle that "The Jerry Springer Show" long ago became. I especially like, however, when he launches into his minutes-long (5? 10? 15?) verbal freestyles, which assume a propulsive syntactic force and logic of their own. When spurred onto his high dudgeon he really surfs. His tone becomes plaintive and incantatory, the waves of commentary just bearing each word then phrase then breathless paragraph forward; and I have come to believe though Springer probably knows he gets carried away, the excitement of being able to let loose just carries him forward. The only thing that breaks these garrulous spells are commercial breaks, after which Springer, roused from his reverie, returns to taking phone calls, like most other talk-radio shows. Then it's back to the radio-Springer and the Heartlanders....

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Robertson Calls for Assassination of Venezuela's Chavez

ChavezYesterday on his 700 Club show, right-wing televangelist and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, in a major international provocation, openly called for the assassination of Venezuela's elected president, Hugo Chávez Frias. After calling him a "dangerous enemy to our South," Robertson claimed that Chávez's Venezuela was "the launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism." He continued: "We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with." Among his other comments, he added, "It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war, and I don't think any oil shipments will stop." Since uttering his outrageous remarks, Robertson has neither retracted them nor apologized. Instead, he's refused further comment, and I wouldn't doubt that more insanity comes out of his mouth in the near future.

Venezuela's officials responded immediately, calling his statements a "call to terrorism." Venezuelan Vice President Vicente Rangel responded, "This is a huge hypocrisy to maintain an antiterrorist line and at the same time have such terrorist statements as these made by Christian preacher Pat Robertson coming from the same country," while Venezuela's ambassador to the United States, Bernardo Álvarez, declared that "Mr. Robertson has been one of the president's staunchest allies. His statement demands the strongest condemnation by the White House." Although the White House has yet to issue a statement, a State Department spokesman called Robertson's comments "inappropriate." Strangelovean Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asserted in a news conference that there were no plans to take Chávez out, but that private citizens had the right to make such statements. (There probably is no law against US citizens issuing threats against foreign leaders, though Robertson's comments sound like clear evidence of terroristic plans, especially given the way terrorism has been defined over the last five years.) According to Yahoo!'s report, Chávez, on his way back from a three-day visit to Cuba, said of Robertson, "I don't even know who this person is." (Based on the power, access and media reach of this crackpot, Mr. Chávez, you just might want to find out.)

Some evangelical Christian associates of the 75-year-old ultraconservative minister, who has been linked to the African diamond mining trade that funded the murderous, region-destabilizing regime of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, and whose support for abortion in Communist China doesn't square with his supposed Christian beliefs, denounced his inflammatory statements on the basis of their violation of basic Christian principles and teachings ("Thou shalt not kill"; "Thou shalt not bear false witness"; the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, etc.). The New York Times reports that Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, issued a statement urging Robertson to "immediately apologize, retract his statement and clarify what the Bible and Christianity teaches about the permissibility of taking human life outside of law." Other evangelicals released similar comments, though tellingly (damningly), the Traditional Values Coalition, the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition all claimed to be "too busy" to comment. I guess there's just so much else for these "Christians" to be concerned about--like denouncing judges they disagree with, demonizing homos, and pushing a theocracy in the US--than addressing the wacko statements of an ally who's meddling, in the most dangerous way, with foreign states and their leaders. The Times also reported that "Rev. Jesse Jackson called for the Federal Communications Commission to investigate, just as it did when Janet Jackson's breast was exposed in the Super Bowl broadcast in 2004." Jackson commented, "'This is even more threatening to hemispheric stability than the flash of a breast on television during a ballgame.'"

Venezuela is the fifth largest oil exporter in the world, sending over 50% of its exports to the US. Although the Bush administration has repeatedly publicly antagonized Chávez's regime, with Condoleezza Rice haranguing the Venezuelan president shortly after she became Secretary of State, and Rumsfeld criticizing Venezuela (and longstanding US scapegoat Cuba) on his recent South American tour, Washington claims that it has no plans to attack or overthrow Chávez (where would the troops come from? Would they be diverted from Colombia, where US actions have received almost no media or public oversight?). Given the US's insatiable oil needs, which aren't going to end anytime soon, and the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East (in Iraq, the war of words with Iran, the "peak oil" situation in Saudi Arabia, etc.), which isn't going to end anytime soon, alienating Venezuela is a perilous prospect indeed. It's unlikely that Chávez would turn off the spigots completely, but while the current administration may strongly disagree with his politics and ideology, it's another thing to abet bellicose statements like Robertson's that just might push Chávez towards vengeful, punitive action, which might have severe repercussions for the US economy.

Chávez initially led an unsuccessful coup against the Venezuelan government in 1992, was jailed, and later won election on a reformist, anti-poverty platform in 1998. He immediately began to revise the political system, setting up a parallel constitutional assembly apart from the legislature that eventually passed a series of laws neutralizing the existing Congress, extending the presidential term of office (to six years), and setting up a new, unicameral legislative body. In 2000, after being reelected, he pushed for a bill affording him the power to issue summary, binding decrees, which he did 49 times in one month in 2001. He survived an attempted coup in 2002, led by elites and established unions, that the US government initially hailed (and is alleged to have supported), and later won a recall referendum on his rule, despite the best ministrations of his opponents (who again had US blessing). He is up for reelection in 2006, and polls show him the clear favorite to win with about 70% approval, particularly among Venezuela's vast population of poor and working-class voters (60% of the population), who form an electoral majority and who were virtually excluded from the franchise in the past. His political associates, through the democratic process, gained control of the Venezuelan National Assembly and many municipal and local positions, and also dominate the Supreme Court. Before his referendum win he had already begun to implement socialist policies, including using state oil company revenues to develop public health, literacy and militia programs, and since then, he has stepped up his rhetoric and actions through the Land Law, which supports taxing unused land, expropriating unused private estates, and rural and restributing the land in grants to peasant farmers (over 80% of Venezuela's land is held by 5% of the population), though he has offered to compensate landowners if they can prove legal title. Nevertheless, squatters have already moved onto many properties. He also has continued to use oil revenues for public projects and programs, including funding for neighborhood associations that nurture his political base, and pushed for joint programs with neighboring oil producers, like Brazil.. One of the few Latin American leaders to champion his Indian and African heritage (which also cannot help him with the elites in his country or in Washington), Chávez is infamous for his long, Castro-stylerants on state TV, which have included denunciations of his political opponents and enemies as well as of Bush, particularly over the Iraq War, the invasion of Haiti, and US trade policies in general. He has allied himself with Iran, and in 2000, in his capacity as OPEC head, became the first Western leader to meet with Saddam Hussein since the Gulf War. Chávez's domination of Venezuela's electoral system and, within the limits of the country's democratic system, his increasingly autocratic rule, are causes for concern. Yet he is wildly popular in Venezuela. Several reports I've seen on TV have allowed to go unchallenged the notion that he is a dictator, when he actually has greater popular support and has won by far greater margins than our own untrammeled, grossly unpopular president. (Actor Danny Glover is one many US public figures and activists who've met with Chávez over the last five years.)

Chávez has emerged as the leading spokesman among hemispheric leftists, pushing for greater integration with Latin American nations, and allying himself very closely with Cuba's socialist dictator Fidel Castro as well as with the democratically elected socialist or socialist-leaning presidents of Brazil (Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva), Argentina (Nestor Kirchner), Chile (Ricardo Lagos), and Uruguay (Tabaré Vázquez). While Lula has continued many of the neoliberal economic policies of his predecessor and has watched his political capital dissipate as financial scandals engulf his Worker's Party, Argentina's Kirchner has rejected out of hand many of the International Money Fund's disastrous plans and has managed to turn Argentina's economy, just two years ago the basketcase of the hemisphere, back towards growth. From an economic standpoint, most nations in the Americas depend upon trade with the United States, but few are willing to tolerate Washington's top-down any more than they have, Venezuela's possession of one of the most important world commodities, which is earning record prices today, gives it tremendous power, and Chávez has used the platform it and his position accord him to proclaim the possibilities of democratic socialism. He publicly did so at the World Social Forum in early 2005 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Whether his version of democratic statist socialism is viable remains to be seen, as it will depend upon the continuance of the wealth generated by high oil prices, his allies' continued electoral success and his curbing his authoritarian tendencies, which at times mimic those of Castro. None of these are guaranteed, but at the very least, the poor in Venezuela are experiencing an economic and social springtime under his leadership.
And then there is the United States; in addition to the US troops stationed in Colombia, the W administration also recently signed a sweeping military pact with Paraguay, against the wishes of the voters there, giving our military access to airstrips and bases, as well as to the back flanks of Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia (whose working class and poor, mostly Indian majority have twice in the last several years forced out elitist, neoliberal incompetent autocrats), Ecuador (where workers have paralyzed the gas industry), while indemnifying US soldiers from prosecution of any sort from actions committed there. Venezuela is only a short flight away. Rumsfeld (yes, him again) was recently in Paraguay and Peru, bucking up the disastrous regime of Alejandro Toledo (whose approval rate is actually lower than W's, at a measly 16%) and negotatiating favorable terms for US military forces there as well. Any sort of action against Venezuela or its leader is strongly inadvisable; the US has enough of a mess on its hands in Iraq, with North Korea and Iran pushing their nuclear capacities as far as they can each day, and other crisis spots across the globe.

Yet W & Co. have repeatedly shown that they want Chávez out, in a way possible and as soon as possible, so perhaps Robertson, who has a history of making deranged comments (such as nuking "Foggy Bottom"or blaming hurricanes on gays or saying that "activist judges" were worse than 9/11) and a shady public profile in general, wasn't speaking out of turn. Though political assassinations have been illegal in the US since 1976, perhaps Robertson was voicing what he's heard or has been asked to float into the public discourse, even if it points to yet another one of the worst actions this country could involve itself in, not that that has every stopped the US before, least of all now.

Update: After first denying that he had called for Chávez's assassination and then denying to Chávez critic and former Venezuelan ambassador Thor Halvorsson that he had used the word "assassination," the dissembling, unhinged Robertson has now officially apologized...sort of. According to Yahoo! News, he said, "Is it right to call for assassination? No, and I apologize for that statement. I spoke in frustration that we should accommodate the man who thinks the U.S. is out to kill him." Instead of trying to twist Chávez's words, maybe a simple, "It was wrong for me, as a Christian, as a major US public figure and a close ally to the President of the United States, to call for the assassination of a foreign leader, no matter how much I may disagree with him and his policies." I doubt this will be enough for Venezuela's officials, and I also wonder what W's officials, like Cheney and Rove--since I doubt W himself got involved--said to Robertson to make him utter even these words. The White House itself, and at the very least the US Secretary of State, should issue an official statement, that includes an apology. Fat chance of that, though....

Monday, August 22, 2005

DR Impressions

A while ago I wrote that I'd post some thoughts on visiting the DR, and after reading Steven Fullwood's post on his trip to Puerto Plata and thinking again about Mendi Lewis Obadike's and Keith Obadike's The Sour Thunder, which deals in part with her stay in Santiago, I decided I'd put a few down. I don't intend them to be comprehensive, but these were some of the things that came immediately to mind as I thought about our various trips to DR:

Being in the DR produces an interesting cognitive state for me because, on the one hand, it is one of the few places in the world that I've visited outside certain places in the US (like Washington, DC, or Detroit, or Atlanta) where the majority of people share my complexion, are built like me, are mostly of African descent (Bahia and Rio are the others), and this puts me very much at ease, and sparks a feeling of recognition that I have not felt traveling other places, meaning I can utterly be myself and relax; and yet, because of the language and cultural differences, because I am so obviously not from there and know it and know the people there know it, I also feel like a visitor and an outsider. In terms of clothing, body size, how I move through the street, even facial physiognomy and grooming, most Dominicans now automatically assume I'm American; on our first few trips, people looked at my dreadlocks and would say "jamaicano" or call out Bob Marley's name (I get "Ras" and "Rastafari" all the time in New York and Chicago), to the extent that one man, like a mina bird, would scream out "No woman no cry" every time he saw me; but in the Colonial Zone, where we've stayed a few times now, the people I encounter increasingly assume the default of "American," and in some cases are still surprised when they hear me speaking Spanish (however slow and non-idiomatic it is). We've seen only a few Dominicans with dreadlocks--there was a Dominican-American on our plane once sporting them, I met a budding Rastafarian in Boca Chica, and spotted a few locked folks circulating around the Conde, so my hair above makes me stand out. On the other hand, in other places, like Santo Domingo's Gazcue neighborhood, I had people address me directly in Spanish without hesitation, and my assumption was that these Dominicans figured that perhaps I was a longterm non-Dominican resident, a local who'd taken up Rastafarianism, or a native who'd lived in the US or elsewhere in the Caribbean and adopted a non-Dominican style of self-presentation. Or maybe it didn't even go that deeply--but I did wonder. What are the markers for methods of identification, and identifying difference? What do they look for, what do I look for?
One of the issues that pops up in a hideous way on the message boards of a site like DR1 is race, and racism. (Sometimes the moderators will shut down threads if people start asking too many questions about race specifically.) While I've said that most of the Dominicans I came across in the DR were of obvious African ancestry, I did not say they were Black. According to various US definitions of Blackness, like the one-drop rule, the vast majority of Dominicans would be considered Black. (Most are as racially mixed, or more so, as most African-Americans, though here I think most people reject terms like "mulatto," which are historically problematic, even though other problematic terms like "biracial" have gained traction.) But without getting into a long disquisition about racial and ethnic formation in the US or DR--which would have to include the country's tumultuous history and relationship with colonial powers Spain and France; its tumultuous relationship with Hispaniola neighbor and sibling nation Haiti; the centuries of colonial and ruling class ideology, including the Spanish and criollo versions of white supremacy; Trujillo's slaughter of Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans; Joaquín Balaguer's notion of Hispanidad; and what I will call, for lack of a better term, Indianism, of a vogue for Indian roots as a way of displacing the African ones--I cannot say that many of the Dominicans would automatically call themselves "Black," per se. Which is to say, they might not use terms like "negro" or "moreno" about themselves. I've read that the term "Indio" is common...and yet, despite the Black-effacing accounts that I've found online and in the official tourist guide that was in my bedside table, and the obvious championing of everything Taíno, what I saw in terms of the people themselves, how the people carried themselves, what was evident in numerous cultural traits (the food, the music, religious practices, etc.), was the indelible African imprint. (This is borne out in the histories by Cambeira, Domínguez, Rout, Sagás and Inoa, and others.) Yet the issue of "Blackness" remains touchy, whether under the guise of the economic and social situation of "Black" Haitians as a foreign presence in DR, or Blackness as a term of self-representation and designation or cultural performance in its various aspects in DR. What was evident among some of the younger people we came across, who'd adopted hiphop and reggaetón styles that celebrated a version of increasingly globalized, commodified, performative Blackness, or with a group like the self-labeled Los Negros (who sing R&B-inflected ballads and were on TV while we were there), was that the issues of Blackness, race and racism were much more complex than they're often presented. (The various local TV programs didn't hesitate to show brown and dark-brown-skinned people regularly, though some of the commercials were as a whitewashed as in Spanish-language American TV; why?)

When we were traveling to Bayahibe on our way to Isla Saona, our tourguide, John-Paul (Jean-Paul?), without prompting, pointed out to our bus full of Europeans (there was another Black American family with us) that in San Pedro de Macorís, where "Sammy Sosa," "Alfonso Soriano," and numerous other famous major league baseball players were from, so many "Haitians" had immigrated there and had mixed with the English-speaking immigrants (some of the earliest ones to San Pedro came from the US, while later waves came from other Caribbean islands like Tortola), that the result was a predominantly "Black" population. He actually used the English word; I immediately thought to myself, so what do you consider yourself? (He could easily have been mistaken for a Black American.) I also wondered who this bit of information was for? Were Europeans usually curious about the Black population? Was he saying that Sosa and Soriano were "Black," but people from other places were not? Was he saying that they were also part Haitian-part West Indian, and what sort of racial-ethnic construction was he devising in terms of San Pedro de Macorís? Would Sammy Sosa consider himself "Black"? (Jacques Chirac, France's corrupt right-wing president, in his usual outrageous hauteur, recently commented that Haiti and DR should rejoin, since both consisted predominantly of Black and mixed people. Either he is more ignorant than anyone believed, or he knew that this comment was sure to set Dominicans off for years to come.)
Bracelet Vendor
Thinking of John-Paul's comments made me think of our very first trip, when we were racing around the Colonial Zone with another guide (his name escapes me). He made a point of showing us everything to do with Columbus, the Catedral Primada Basilica (the first RC cathedral in the Americas), Taíno symbol-covered tchotchkes, and so on. After a bit of this, I finally had to ask, "What about the African history?" or something to that effect. Whereupon he replied, "We're all Black here,"or something very close to this, and quickly went on to the next topic. When we happened upon a little gallery run by two Haitian men that was full of Haitian art, and I asked them to see a vèvè, which they kept hidden behind the canvases, the guide basically fled the room. That was a bit too much "Blackness" for him, I think. At any rate, race remains a complex issue, which did not come up at all--and on one level, why would it have? Would I be discussing race in Barbados? In Jamaica? In Aruba?--even as its centrality to DR's social relations was constantly on view. (I'll leave the question of Haiti and Haitians for another post.)

Without doubt, I think I've been treated as well (maybe better?) in the DR as in any other place I've other visited. But then, as I wrote in a prior post, I think, outside of the US, I've never encountered the blatant and constant racism I do just living every day in this, my native country. Never. Not in Canada, not in any European country (save one) I've visited, not in Mexico, not in Brazil. Whatever people have felt about Blacks--and racism is alive in well in all these countries, without a doubt--not once have I experienced what some friends have, perhaps in part because I'm usually identifiably American, identifiably a tourist, and a man (gender-related bias plays into racist attitudes). In fact, the only overtly racist incident I experienced occurred in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1990, when I was mistaken for an African (and there were hundreds--thousands?--of Africans milling about the main squares of that city), which was sort of a childhood fantasy of being a different kind of Black person (an African, no less!) playing out in the most negative way. That experience definitely was not what I think any of the teachers in African dancing or my Black drawing classes could have prepared me for. The DR is also the only place where men I've never met have called me "beautiful" (in English, not Spanish) to my face, on the street, no less, even if one was obviously a hustling scam artist and the other was lit up on pocket bottle of rum. The drunk actually repeated it, for emphasis, and didn't ask for money, either....

Spanish, which I'm glad I taught myself years ago, is utterly indispensible in the DR, especially for traveling around the capital city and to other points in the country if you don't have an English-speaking guide. Outside of the people at the hotel desk, the various Americans we know or met, and many of the Haitians I chatted with, most Dominicans we encountered spoke only minimal to no English. This was the case in Santo Domingo, in Samaná, in Boca Chica, in San Francisco de Macorís, in Bayahibe, pretty much everywhere we traveled. Occasionally some Dominicans made a point of speaking English, but that was rare (though if they'd lived in the US they were often fluent, and we met a few kids who were on vacation or adults who were back living in the DR after years in the US). I'm also glad that rather than learning Castilian (or as I was always told, "proper") Spanish, what I've managed to acquire is a garbled but useful Caribbean-Mexican idiom, which probably wouldn't be intelligible in Spain, but it works in DR and among Spanish-speakers in the US.
Outdoor Artist
I always enjoy coming across fellow Americans outside the country, but the DR is the only place I've been where many of them are Black--and lgbt/sgl. On our trips to Brazil, of course, we have come across a number of Black Americans; when we went to Bahia, I spotted poet and former teacher Sonia Sanchez and scholar and poet Rachel Harding while we were making our connection in the São Paulo airport, and later, through a bit a serendipity, ran into Sonia's son on the beach in Rio. On another visit, when traveling down to Rio we noticed a number of straight Black American men on our flight, and once there we met other Black Americans (male and female) who were recreating and taking in the cidade maravilhosa. But the DR is perhaps the only place I've been where most of the Americans we've met are Black, and a sizable number also happen to be lgbt/sgl as well. In Santo Domingo, Black gay Americans have actually begun to develop a business infrastructure; first and foremost there's Anthony Montgomery, who founded and runs the Monaga Corporation, a multiservice organization that includes an apartment suite and rentals, tours, and much more. We've also met David Lee, who runs the Sports Bar, a great casual nightspot, and Mario Sessions, a graphic designer and photographer who organizes DR events. In addition we've encountered a number of Black gay/sgl American tourists who, like friends of ours over the years, have visited and fallen in love with DR and its people.

I often wonder what it would be like to live in a foreign country for an extended period of time. When I was in college I knew a few people who could afford to take time off and go travel; most went to Europe or Asia (China, Japan), to do research and experience the cultures they were studying in person. Since then I've known a number of writers and artists who've done so, usually in Europe, though I know of several poets who've spent time in Bahia, and as is clear from her blog, Soucouyant was in South Africa for several months. When I worked at MIT, I used to prepare visa applications for foreign visitors, and got to know scholars from Israel, France, Italy, South Korea, and Brazil who were spending six months to a year in Boston. The longest I've ever lived away from what I'd consider my primary home (or homes) was during a writing residency in Saratoga Springs, which I think lasted two weeks or so (I had to get back for the purposes of work). C and I both have wondered what it would be like to live in DR, so maybe we'll have the opportunity to do so eventually. I realized that I could live there (as I could in other places we've visited), but that my perspective really would change if were there for an extended period as opposed to visiting as a tourist. Not have recourse to English, dealing with the electrical problems, the cultural and societal differences, including the legal system, and being cut off from the familiarity of US, among other things, would pose serious challenges.
Street scene
The economic crisis and rising poverty in the DR become more evident every time we visit. I usually keep up with DR news via the DR1 site, and through my reading am a little familiar with the political situation in the country. In 2004, Dominicans re-elected as their president Leonel Fernández Reyna (Leonel), the New York-raised economist and leader of the PLD party, who had become president in 1996 by joining with PRD leader and former dictator Joaquín Balaguer to defeat RPD leader José Francisco Peña Gómez, the former mayor of Santo Domingo and a Dominican of Haitian ancestry whom Balaguer and others in the political ruling class were determined to keep out of office. During his first term, Fernández Reyna pursued neoliberal economic policies, including selling off the electrical grid and privatizing various aspects of the economy. His four years in office coincided with the US (and world) economic boom under moderate-conservative Democrat Bill Clinton, and the Dominican economy expanded. In 2000, Leonel couldn't run again because of Dominican constitutional provisions, and Hipólito Mejia, from Peña Gómez's party, was elected president. In four years the Dominican economy (like the US economy) tanked; a spectactular private bank collapse, which Mejía allegedly used $2 billion from the Dominican treasury to cover, only made the economic situation worse. Leonel has placed improving the Dominican economy and creating jobs at the forefront of his presidency (and it is remarkable, I have to say, to see the president of a country on television freely engaging in probing conversations with scholars, government officials and business leaders about contemporary societal issues is thrilling, yet talk only goes so far), but rising oil prices, limited natural resources, low prices for Dominican commodities, waxing inflation, a lack of investment capital, longstanding structural and infrastructure problems, a steadily increasing populace (both through natural growth and immigration from Haiti and other countries, like Cuba), international fiscal demands, and the worsening situation in neighboring Haiti, which continues to send thousands of people to DR in search of work, have made it extremely difficult for Leonel to pull off a quick turnaround. On top of this, the basic crisis in electrical service (there are daily blackouts, and three times within the last week the entire country has experienced a blackout) not only is disadvantaging DR's businesses in general, but especially one of the country's growing sectors, tourism, compared to many of its smaller Caribbean competitors. The desperation among many people was evident to me; in Santo Domingo, I noticed more street children, more adults begging and begging aggressively, and more intensity in the usual hustles we've encountered in the past. The physical state of some buildings in Santo Domingo's colonial zone seems to have worsened as well, though I also noted a lot of renovation, since DR remains a bargain investment option compared to other tourist-target countries. The release-valve option of coming to the US has become more difficult since 9/11; not only are US authorities shipping Dominicans back from nearby Puerto Rico, but it's harder for Dominicans to get visas to travel to the US.

After our first trip to DR, when we stayed in Boca Chica, what immediately struck me was how overt the heterosexual prostitution in that resort were; as we pulled up to our first hotel, a European man and Dominican woman were engaged in a financial transaction right in the driveway. Subsequent trips have impressed upon me that the sex trade in all its forms is thriving there (though less so, it seemed, in Samaná), in no small part because of the dire economic situation the majority of Dominicans are facing. While I support people's right to earn money in whatever ways they can, I find exploitation of any sort deeply disturbing. For many women and men in DR, as in Cuba, Brazil, Thailand, and other countries, the sex trade is one of the surest ways to earn money and put food on the table...and yet rationalizing this does dispel the sense that things would be better if people had more employment options. (In wealthy countries, prostitution exists, and might be an option of choice--but there is a difference between having options and having none.) Sorting out sex-for-pay and exploitation, however, is not so easy, which makes discussing it a fraught subject to discuss (and some people, like French author Michel Houellebecq, actually celebrate it as an option for the economically marginal and oppressed outside Europe, and for the sexually rejected among Europeans.) A separate but related issue involves the sexual exploitation of minors, which also deeply troubles me. Recently a friend noted that he would not want to travel to countries where sex tourism is so evident, and I had to remind him that he would be disqualifying most of the countries across the globe, especially outside Europe (where the sex trade flourishes even in some of the wealthiest societies on earth), but I added that prostitution and sex-for-sale exist the US as well. (One of Jersey City's prime prostitution strips, where poor female addicts congregate, was featured just a few years ago on the nationally syndicated Fox show Cops, while documentaries on prostitution in New York have also appeared more than once on TV in the last few years.) Of course that doesn't make exploitation anywhere any better, but I try to keep in mind that the issue is complex and not so easily reducible to moralistic pronouncements and slogans.
Charlando en la calle
Just as I ventured to comment on race, I also will say a little about (homo)sexuality. A while ago I read an interesting article, via Monaga's site, on homosexuality in DR. One of the arguments in that piece was that DR was a conservative, macho, class-stratified society, and that while there was a nascent gay scene in Santo Domingo and a US-European style "gay" consciousness was developing there, historical traditions, the conservatism of the culture, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, different views on sexuality and sexual commerce, and class and economic issues were all strongly shaping its developing, making it quite different than in some other Caribbean or Latin American countries. As in Haiti, and unlike in most Anglophone and some other Hispanophone countries, homosexual sex was never criminalized because of the adoption of the Napoleonic code (which decriminalized same-sexual relations in France at the turn of the 19th century). Lack of criminalization, however, doesn't mean acceptance, and I think it would be fair to say that overt displays of homosexuality, at least as we might see in the US, would not be acceptable in most parts of DR, especially in rural areas. But acceptance is also a different issue from same-sexual practice. I've argued before on here that equating same-sexual practices with gay orientation, with "gay" self-identification, and with what you might call gay social performance, is problematic; some of the Dominican men I spoke with that I knew were MSMs reinforced this difference. Many had children, some were married. How applicable would Euro-Americans labels be for these men, even if they'd come into contact with the social constructs behind them? Maybe, maybe not. In Santo Domingo there were also men who appeared to be more openly homosexual, in their public performance. There seemed to be a social space open to them; since I don't live there I don't know, but I did wonder what life was like for them. What about in smaller cities and the countryside? According to the article, things were different, and perhaps more difficult for middle-class gays. (And probably easier for wealthy and rich gays.) I was therefore interested in the social spaces created by the American entrepreneurs, and how this was shaping views of sexuality and self-identification, and social relations more broadly. In terms of the social norms, heteronormativity was, unsurprisingly, quite strong: people constantly were assuming that C. and I were seeking women. As the Black lgbt tourist stream grows, will people's perceptions of the tourists change? Unfortunately, I didn't meet any self-identified lesbians, though I imagine there is a lesbian scene, not only in Santo Domingo, but in other parts of the country as well.

Back in January 2003, I saw Andrea Robbins's and Max Becher's exhibit The Transportation of Place at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. One of Robbins's and Becher's foci was the "Americans of Samaná." As the press release described this aspect of the exhibit:

The series The Americans of Samaná (1998 – 2001) documents the descendants of freed African American slaves who traveled to the Dominican Republic in 1824 in a scheme initiated and financed by President Pierre Boyer of Haiti, with the cooperation of the American Colonization Society. Today about 8,000 descendants of the original group speak an American English from 1824 in a Spanish-speaking country and live in linguistic and religious isolation-the "Americanos" are protestant, while most other Dominicans are Catholic.
This wasn't the first time I'd heard about Samaná (which is where Napoleon's military landed in its final attempt to reconquer Haiti and which was nearly purchased by the US in the 19th century), though. Almost a decade ago, I worked with a Dominican guy, Frank C., whose family came from Samaná, and though he had a Spanish last name, he'd told me a similar story of the American links there. I also known of a scholar, José Vigo, who served as an intellectual mentor to a close friend, and who'd been studying the Americanos in Samaná before he died of AIDS in the late 1980s. In the city of Samaná and in the Samaná resort town of las Galeras, where we stayed during a previous visit, we actually looked for some of these Americanos, whom I imagined would, as the exhibit proclaimed, would somehow stand out. On the bus trip back from the northern province, I asked a young White American Peace Corps worker if he'd come across any of the English speakers in the Samaná countryside (el campo), and he said he hadn't. Though we did meet some natives of Samaná and asked around, we had no luck in finding the Americanos; flipping through the Samaná phone directory, however, I did see a number of English names (Bell, Green, Lee, etc.), which provided some evidence that some of the Americanos (and subsequent waves of English-speaking immigrants from the Caribbean, known as cocolos) actually are there, somewhere. (Current Detroit Tigers pitcher Fernando Rodney is from there). I actually have been writing a story that involves this particular aspect of African-American and Dominican history. At some future point, I hope to return to Samaná and meet some of the Americanos in person. Perhaps Samaná College, once it's off the ground, may provide the means for doing so.
Calle las Damas por tarde
I'll end by saying that I probably have bought enough cigars to last me a year (since I rarely smoke them) and my favorite Dominican dish remains pulpa al ajillo (octopus in garlic). Sancocho dominicano (a kind of pot au feu), pollo dominicano, and all of the sopas de pescado (fish soup) are also high on my list. All dispelled whatever lingering desires I may have had for American cuisine--and in any case, fried chicken, spaghetti, pizza, and hamburguesas, sin y on queso, were available at many restaurants, had I wanted them. But I didn't....