Roberta Flack

Today is Roberta Flack’s birthday (1939). I remember listening to this album, Chapter Two, all through the second half of my sophomore year in college through graduation and beyond. Many years later, sometime in the late 1980s, I ran into a guitar player who toured with her for a couple of years and found myself dusting off and playing the album again (and again). And so today. Yes, we still have a working turntable (the best way to listen to music). Happy Birthday, Ms. Flack. You rock!

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Just before I roost

The European starling was first introduced to North America by the American Acclimatization Society, which wanted to introduce all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare to this continent. The starling is mentioned in Henry IV, Part I— Hotspur (Henry Percy) says,

I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him

To keep his anger still in motion.

100 starlings were released into New York’s Central Park in 1890-91. A flock of starlings is called a murmuration, an incredibly poetic word, but not as poetic as actually experiencing in person the beautiful spontaneity of this dance, this fluid and flowing collective creativity, usually performed before the starlings roost in the evening. (Also done as a way to avert predators.)

So on this cold and bitter February evening—after a long day with emotional, eager, and needy teenagers and after grading a pile of rough but sincere papers— I could use a little murmuration, just before I roost.

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History is turned on its head

Today is the 100th anniversary of the opening of Birth of A Nation, at Clunes Auditorium in Los Angeles.

The first feature length film ever produced (three hours and ten minutes), this film was the technical and acting tour de force of its day, developing and creating filmic techniques that are still employed — night shots, panoramic shots, panning, iris effects, color tinting, spectacular battlefield reenactments with loads of extras, the still shot, scenes filmed from multiple angles, parallel action and editing, close-ups, fadeouts, lap dissolves, and cross-cutting to name a few.

The problem with the film, of course, is that it described the founding, not of our country, but of the KKK, the white supremacist “nation,” and how it saved the South after the Civil War. This film exemplifies the rewritten history of the Civil War and Reconstruction known as “The Lost Cause,” composed by the South who was absolutely committed to not allowing newly freed blacks to exercise any of the rights they won after the Civil War. The KKK is glorified. Blacks are denigrated. History is turned on its head.

The film was directed by D.W. Griffith and starred Lillian Gish. Griffith’s own father fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War and was wounded. He suffered for many years after as a result from these wounds and died a relatively young man.  Griffith was clearly infused with the passion of the Lost Cause and never really understood the protests against the blatant racism in his film.

Many actors who portrayed black characters, especially those who come into contact with the white actors, were white people in black face, due to discriminatory hiring practices in the film industry at the time. Real blacks had minor roles. The stereotypical portrayals of people of color make this film very difficult to watch, cringe-worthy, and in many scenes where the black people are actually played by white people, patently surreal (especially as the black face is often sloppily applied).

Though the film was a commercial success (over $60 million in its first run), it fomented a lot of protest from the black community, including riots in Boston and Philadelphia. The NAACP tried to shut it down. When that proved impossible, they worked to get key racist scenes excised. After the film’s opening, gangs of whites attacked blacks. One teenager was killed in Lafayette Indiana by a white man after viewing the film. Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and St. Louis refused to allow the film to open in their cities because of the potential for racial unrest. It also caused a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan who increased their membership dramatically after 1915. Until the 70s, the Klan used this film as a recruiting tool.

This was the first film to be shown inside the White House and there is an apocryphal story that Woodrow Wilson, another son of the south, claimed, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” This quote appears in the opening of the film. Quotes from Woodrow Wilson’s history book he had written, concerned with the period of Reconstruction, are presented on intertitles before Part 2 of the film, “legitimizing” the history presented in the movie.

The Library of Congress has deemed this film worthy of preservation in its National Film Registry and it was voted in the top 100 films in the American Film Institute. It is said that when Hitler and Mussolini saw this film, they immediately understood the power of film as propaganda and employed its persuasiveness in support of their own political agenda.

On this 100th anniversary of the original Birth of a Nation, its title has been reclaimed with a new Birth of a Nation which debuted at Sundance a week ago. The 19th century slave rebellion of Nat Turner is what this new “Birth” is about, directed and acted by Nate Parker, winning both the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award. Fox Searchlight bought the film for distribution for $17.5million. Perhaps, a century later, history has finally righted itself.

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All she wants to do is hold your hand

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When Merle died, a man who lived in the same assisted living facility as my mother Pearl, she told me his last words were, “Pearl. Pearl. Pearl.” I asked her how she knew that.

Then she said, “I don’t know why they would have told me about your cancer if it wasn’t true.” I told her that I didn’t have cancer and I didn’t want to discuss this anymore.

Later it was about the $12 she owed me, which she didn’t, but was absolutely convinced she did. Easier than arguing, I let her believe she owed me the money.

This was interspersed with —a three mile walk on a brisk, but very sunny day in a beautiful Ann Arbor Park greeted by joggers and bikers, impressed I was pushing my mother in her wheelchair so far down the paved trail; the sharing of a chai tea together which we got for free because I had purchased ten previous cups at this coffee house (totally  impressing my mother, absorbing a lot of her focus) while discussing her grandson’s becoming an entrepreneur; and meeting up with my sister and her wife for dinner, getting mom a hamburger in Ypsilanti at one of the best hamburger joints in the US according to GQ magazine and Oprah Winfrey. The day was also filled with her spontaneous naps and long, long, very long mental emergings from those naps, including periodically staring into an invisible and mysterious space.

My mother is letting go yet clinging; sucked out by the undertow yet still swimming against the current. She is confused and clear. She fantasizes yet still sharply observes. She is compassionate; she is bitter. She is winding down and occasionally revving up. She is inside; she is out.  She is here. She is there. And through it all, really the beautiful essence of it, is all she wants to do is hold your hand.

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15th Amendment

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Today is the anniversary of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, the amendment securing the right of black males to vote, though the word black is not mentioned in the amendment itself.

During Reconstruction, the period right after the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment granting citizenship to all who are born here were ratified. Though the Reconstruction Acts passed by the Radical Republicans in 1867 required confederate states to include black male suffrage in their reconstituted constitutions, the majority of northern states still continued to deny blacks the right to vote. This hypocrisy truly riled the white south.

In 1867, the Republicans’ once large lead over the white supremacist Democratic party was shrinking, threatening a loss of their control of congress. The Republicans felt if they could make sure that blacks could vote in all the states, their hold on power would be maintained, especially since blacks would more than likely support the party that fought for their rights and especially their suffrage. However, many northern whites were against blacks voting in the north, several states actually passing laws against it. In May 1868, at the Republican convention, Ulysses S. Grant was nominated as president of the United States. It was decided that the party platform would continue to require southern states to allow black suffrage, but it would be left up to the northern states to decide for themselves whether blacks should vote or not.

Grant, though very popular, won the presidency by a very small margin which meant to Republican leaders that black suffrage was essential to their maintaining majorities in both houses of Congress. At the beginning of 1869, the Republicans with a majority in a lame duck congress, introduced the Fifteenth Amendment after several months of debate and revision.

Section 1: The right of citizens of the United States vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Three-quarters of the states, 28, of the 37 states were needed for ratification. Since the 11 southern states were run by Republican Reconstruction governments, the Republicans were assured of ratification there. 17 border, western, and northern states complied in support of the amendment, with Georgia being the 28th state to ratify in February of 1870.

Jubilation over ratification was, of course, short-lived. In the south, violent groups like the KKK intimidated blacks who voted, their homes burnt, their families hurt or killed. Literacy tests, not given to white voters, were employed as well as poll taxes and grandfather clauses instituted. In Mississippi in 1867, 67% of the black male population was registered to vote, by 1892, only 4%. It wasn’t until 1965 that the Fifteenth Amendment would truly be enforced through the Voting Rights Act.

This anniversary is yet another reminder about the commitment on the ground needed to ensure civil rights. Any laws can exist, but such laws are powerless without the vigilance required to enforce them. It’s also a reminder that understanding the motivations for the support of civil rights is not always simple, straight forward, or pure.

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Looney Tunes’ chase in the Louvre

Being chased by Elmer Fudd, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck escape into paintings in the Louvre Museum, from Looney Tunes: Back in Action 2003.

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From uniform to pulp/ Battlefield to workshop/ Warrior to artist

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In the Lobby at Harris Theater last Friday, just before the theater was open for seating for the World Premier of My Lai, a table was set up displaying hand-made paper, some of which had been stencil-printed. It turns out the man behind the table, Drew Cameron, was hired by the composer of My Lai, Jonathan Berger, as a creative consultant. Cameron is an Iraq war veteran and is one of the founders of the Combat Paper Project.

Cameron takes military uniforms, cuts them, pulps them, and turns them into paper. This  project is designed as an outreach to vets and has spread to many sites throughout the states. Cameron said in 2007, “The story of the fiber, the blood, sweat and tears, the months of hardship and brutal violence are held within those old uniforms. The uniforms often become inhabitants of closets or boxes in the attic. Reshaping that association of subordination, of warfare and service, into something collective and beautiful is our inspiration.”

The green paper in front of us on the table was made from military uniforms worn in the Vietnam War. The whitish paper was from Iraq/Afghanistan American military uniforms. The stenciled image on the green paper was based on the Vietnamese musical instrument called the Trung (see above), which is a kind of xylophone made out of sharpened bamboo sticks. This was one of the instruments so beautifully played by Van-Anh Vanessa Vo in the performance of the opera we were about to see. During the Vietnam War these Trung were used by the Viet Cong to cover traps and holes.

We wanted to purchase one of the stenciled prints and were told the cost was $50. A short man came up to the table and asked Cameron how much the unstenciled sheet of paper was.

“Fifty dollars,” he said.

“But there is no image on it.”

“It’s still fifty dollars.”

“It’s blank. It’s still fifty dollars?”

“Yes. It’s a portrait. Get it?” And then he turned to us. “Get it?”

The short man continued, “Fifty dollars with nothing on it?”

“It’s a portrait.”

“What?”

“It’s somebody’s uniform. A lot of experiences in that uniform. It’s a portrait of someone.”

Transformation is offered to participants on the Combat Paper’s website:

From uniform to pulp
Battlefield to workshop
Warrior to artist

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