Thursday, February 11, 2010

Thursday (Mandela + RI's/US's 1st Black Gay House Speaker + Food Stamp Nation + Faulkner's Sources + RIP Alexander McQueen)

I realized I can probably recall the things I want to post about by scanning my Twitter feeds, because since it's so fast and easy to register a fleeting thought or some link of interest in 140 characters or less, I have taken to doing so. So here are a few things that I noted earlier, and a few that I didn't.


It really has been 20 years since Nelson Mandela (Madiba) was released from prison, initiating the political and social transformation of the apartheid state, into which he'd been born, into one of the most progressive democracies in Africa. Today South Africa hailed the 91-year-old former leader (above, with his wife, Graça Michel, in parliament today. Photograph: Schalk Van Zuydam/EPA)  for his vision, courage, generosity, grace, and above all, leadership. As the post-apartheid state's first president, he established a record that neither of his successors have been able to match, but to which all national leaders might aspire. At the South Parliament today, before an address by the new president, the scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma, parliamentarians of all colors broke into songs of praise of Mandela, honoring his achievements and, as the Guardian UK suggests, striving to summon the unity, harmony and societal advancement that his tenure, against so many odds, represented. I should add that I can recall the day he was released; I was at the annual Celebration of Black Writing in Philadelphia, then sponsored by Robin's Book Store, and the late Dennis Brutus announced from the stage, to a chorus of cheers and applause, and disbelief that quickly turned into joy, that Mandela would be released.  I cannot say what I thought at that moment beyond my recognition that something utterly momentous was taking place, but it was clear, as had become year the previous year with the fall of the Berlin Wall, that the longtime commonplaces that had shaped the years of my childhood were changing before my eyes. Mandela was then, as now, not just the symbol, but the living embodiment, of greatness and promise, and whatever struggles South Africa continues to face, he gave its people, his people, a tremendous start and advantage on resolving them. As a praise song might begin,

He is Madiba the magnificent.
Leader of leaders, bearer of the future,
Father and husband, first president and prescient visionary.
With him the nation shed its shackles on the prison yard soil,
With him the nation walked free into its possibility,
With him, the magnificent, the people's lands
might belong to them again, might bear fruit again,
might bear the weight of new foundations, new dreams....


As I first saw reported on Rod 2.0, Rhode Island breaks considerable historical ground with its House's selection of the first out, black gay speaker of any US state house, Gordon D. Fox (at right). The Cape Verdean-Irish (he considers himself black and, according to Rod, a role model for younger black gay people), Providence-based Democratic politician, formerly the Majority Leader, received 51 of 75 votes, becoming Rhode Island's first black and first gay speaker, and the nation's second openly gay legislative leader. Three firsts, and a second! Congratulations, Gordon D. Fox!


At least once a week or so I probably state in so many words how bad things are economically nowadays, but this statistic really bears my lamentations out. 1 in 8 Americans, or 13% of the population, or about 37.5 million people, are now using food stamps. That's larger than the entire population of California, or, to give a non-US example, of Peru, to give a comparison. I've seen several online commentators note how surprised they were by this statistic, but I had to ask: why? Are these folks in that much of a bubble? The real unemployment rate is upwards of 17%; in some communities a quarter or more people are out of work. The rate of unemployment for Black men is mired at about 50% in Milwaukee, to give just one example.

How bad are things in some places? Earlier this year, the Times ran a story about how 6 million Americans reported only food stamps as income. Let me state that again--6 million people across the US reported having no income beyond food stamps. Nothing. Instead of this sparking a public outcry, or even a gesture of empathy among politicians and media commentators, it seemed to disappear, like so much other important news, into the ether.

Although the White House and government tell us that jobs are being created, this isn't happening at anywhere near the rate to make up for the massive losses of the past three years.  In every case where Obama and Co. could have taken a more aggressive step, they instead chose, and continue to elect, tepid, neoliberal approaches, which are then usually worsened by incorporating failed conservative ideas (tax cuts!), with the result that instead of the jobs the country badly needs, right away, we'll probably see high unemployment levels for years several years to come.

As The Root points out, given that fewer Americans belong to unions (1 in 10) than just a few years ago, is it any surprise that more of us must rely on government assistance just to feed ourselves and our families? Love for labor was never popular, but now it's increasingly lost--to the society's severe detriment. Let's see someone in the media make that correlation.


Today the New York Times featured a very interesting article today about how Emory University-based scholar Sally Wolff-King, figured out that a Mississippi slaveowner's ledger and diary books (image at right, Southern Historical Collection/Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), long ensconced (since 1946) at the University of North Carolina, provided the source material for a number of William Faulkner's novels, including several of his greatest, among them The Sound and the Fury (1929--and my favorite).  I won't recite the article, which brims with fascinating tidbits, including the fact that the slaveowner's descendent, 79-year-old Edgar Wiggin Francisco III (could you make that name up?), whose father had been close friends with father, had in his possession but had never read the key Faulkner novels in which his ancestor's information appeared! But most interesting to me was how Faulkner, who supposedly cursed the pro-slavery discourse in the original texts as he read them and took notes at the Franciscos' home, recycled the enslaved people's names--among them Candis, who became Candace (Caddy), and Ben (Benjamin/Benjy)--for central white characters in the novels, while keeping several key details of the original people. (Ben, according to the slavemaster, had the same developmental issues as Benjy Compson.) While transposition is par for the course among fiction writers, who draw not only from their imaginations but from experience and research, the circumstances and effects of Faulkner's transpositions raise a range of questions about his political, ideological and aesthetic aims. At one level, the slaves--and their names--live on through his intercession, even if in different, fictional skins. At another, he is participating in, if I may make the leap, a queering of the historical and fictional discourse--though at the same time very much in keeping with the historical logic of (Southern) American history and culture, where there are often black roots--through the reformulated truths of fiction. I think almost immediately of Quentin and Jason Compson, who would be turning over in the graves, the latter especially so, if they saw who their fictional bloodlines led, in an imaginative sense, back to.


The first news item I saw this morning was the death, apparently by suicide, of British designer Alexander McQueen. He was only 40. I rarely write about fashion on here, and though I'm one of the most unfashionable people on earth, it has been a longstanding lowgrade interest of mine, and I can recall the many years that C and I wouldn't miss "Style with Elsa Klensch" when it used to come on CNN.  Even on that catholic program McQueen always occupied the outer edge, as he did of mainstream fashion, with runway shows and clothing that in their frequent outrageousness, occasionality ridiculousness and sometimes near-impossibility represented for me the true inventiveness and sometimes messy daring of Britain's contribution to contemporary fashion. McQueen had many successes, including serving as the lead designer at Givenchy for four years and for over a decade at his own house.

Most recently I've been obsessed with his really impossible crustacean-like shoes (above, top right), which were part of his Spring 2010, reptilian-themed fashion show, which he webcast this past fall (a clip is below), setting a new standard for all such efforts, and I made sure not to miss it. The shoes, like some of his past offerings, appeared to be unwearable, and some models refused to take the runway in them, a protest I completely sympathized and agreed with, but as works of fashion art, they're incomparable. I was glad that some high profile people--first Lady GaGa in her "Bad Romance" video, then socialite-artist Daphne Guinness (above right, second photo, Vogue UK © Wenn) and finally singer-performer Kelis--dared rock them; now I'd like to see those pump-wearing men in Atlanta work them too. It would be a fitting tribute to McQueen, who season after season truly saw far into the future.

Alexander McQueen's Spring 2010 show, part 1

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