In service to my coming out as a committed writer in search of a meaningful career, I experienced a setback moment approximately a week ago after certain comments were made regarding a 'byte' I posted to my professional Facebook page. I thought long enough and hard enough—just short of talking myself out of it—before posting it. It was a bold move done in the spirit of artistic freedom, in the hope of generating discussion. The critique, meant to be constructive, was a behind the scenes one that unintentionally punched me square in the viscera. So, again, I asked myself this old familiar question: Does an artist—a writer, in my case—have a right to any and all attitudes, perceived or real, when it comes to certain sensitive and potentially explosive subject matters, that might cause hurt, pain, misunderstanding? Are we permitted to use loaded language/imagery, or controversial or inflammatory words in the service of our art?
Shortly before that incident, I became aware of the controversy surrounding American tennis' latest female hopeful. In a publicized interview, Sloane Stephens, rising star, dared to criticize Serena Williams, currently number one female tennis player in the world and fifteen times Grand Slam trophy snatcher with a total of fifty-one career titles. Sloane has three titles but no Grand Slam—yet—and to get there she has to play and beat the big dogs. At nineteen years of age and ranked number twenty-nine at the time, she beat Serena in the quarterfinals at the Australia Open this past January, one of the four major tournaments (Grand Slams), the other three being the French Open, aka Roland Garros, England's Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. Towards the beginning of the third set, a frustrated Serena was lead to destroy her racket in a temper tantrum. Sloane did not go on to win the title but she snatched it away from Serena who had been blazing a trail, and put it into the hands of the Belorussian, Victoria Azarenka. After her upset win, the twenty-year-old Sloane says Serena stopped speaking to her altogether, sent out a tweet saying "I made you", leaving little doubt in most minds who the target of that tweet was, and then 'unfollowed' her on Twitter. Sloane caught a great deal of flack from media sages, and cyber fanatics who have nothing better to do than tweet like twits every fissure in a moment they find. "Whatever you say is going to get blown out of proportion," is what Martina Navratilova had to say. Maybe I should have provided some context for my Facebook posting, suggested my well-meaning critic—who experienced her own gut reaction—so that readers could understand better where I was coming from, that I wasn't being "flippant" about the horrific history of slavery in this country. Pundit or player? Scholar or artist? Is history sacred? Is art untouchable? Are pop icons and superstars off limits if we don't share their status? I spent a lot of time trying to get a handle on the myriad thoughts and feelings that sprung into my head like wildflowers after a wet rain, surfacing around these two disparate occurrences (Sloane's experience and mine), resulting in even more questions to myself: When does an artist not be true to herself, keep her voice in check, in favor of not appearing sacrilegious? Just putting the questions to page kicks up pesky issues, like shaking a rug out the window dislodges inert particles of existence disturbed into motion.
I have a tendency to philosophize (which can get in the way of making a point, and the one I'm trying to make here is already evasive enough): It is human nature to reduce complexities to manageable dualities. Simplify with contradictions. Build on binaries. Make clear decisions based on opposites. Male or female. Black or white. Sane or insane. Rich or poor. Awareness of the vast expanses existing between two poles becomes mired with the ease of pretending they don't exist because it's easier to deal with extremes, to become polarized, to define something—and ourselves—by what it/we are not. Crossroads happen, creating murky spaces. Lines blur and bleed. I also have a tendency to free write, a natural urge, and a tool that many writers use to get their juices flowing. Both—waxing philosophical and writing off the top—are different manifestations of the same voice.
There it is again. Voice. I wrote about it in a recent blog post. Voice cannot be circumvented. Voice is who you are when you choose to express yourself.
The one sure thing that Sloane and I have in common, aside from being African American women, is we both spoke out. Each used her voice to say what was on her mind at a given moment under a certain set of circumstances.
Bill Macatee, sports broadcaster for the French Open, describes Sloane as "bubbly and unfiltered". This is why she is liked, he explained, for her freshness. I would add that with that freshness comes a certain political naïveté. The Williams sisters have many detractors—and Serena is not always 'warm and fuzzy'—among whom you'll find plenty of black people who, among other things, don't like that the sisters are currently dating non African American men. But they also have a huge support base and following, a great deal of status and respect, and have paid their dues many times over, from being discriminated against on the courts (the blatantly wrong line call
in Jennifer Capriati's favor during the 2004 U.S. Open quarterfinals that handed the match to Capriati over Serena), to the murder of their sister, serious injuries, a pulmonary embolism that had Serena believing she would not live much longer, and Venus' diagnosis of Sjorgren's Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that causes fatigue, and drying of tear ducts and salivary glands.
Putting words into the young players' mouths, senior writer for Sports Illustrated, Jon Wertheim, commented that "...you don't want us to be oatmeal. You want us to have color.." And when they do they get taken to task for it. "You want to be out there. You want to be open and candid...", he said. Now Sloane is criticized for being "robotic" in her interviews, practicing circumspection, wary of putting her foot into her mouth again and incurring even greater disdain from mountaintop dwellers. She has jumped back in line, censored for now. The lesson learned is not to say what she is thinking. In all fairness, this rule of thumb applies to everyone to some extent, and certainly until you learn how to say what's on your mind without pulling the pillars down around you.
My Facebook posting got little attention but I pulled it anyway. The visceral response was too strong to ignore. It settled in for days. I had taken a calculated, sober risk, to the extent of deciding I wanted to post on my recent 'professional' page rather than my 'fun' page which has been around years longer. In my opinion, nothing is taken seriously in terms of art on the 'fun' page. There is way to much going on and, as one Facebook friend recently posted, some people just need to keep a journal. My posting was a creative
inspiration and I thought it belonged on my 'professional' page.
Midweek I began to understand what I was feeling. Shame. It wasn't the only emotion, but it was the strongest. It felt like the time I was told as a young girl of eight or nine to go put on a shirt because I was getting too large to go bare-chested. It was a hot summer Sunday in San Antonio and I was twirling like a spinning top with my brothers who were also naked from the waist up. Our chests all looked pretty much identical, but because I was a girl, there was something different about it that I could not see, something that placed a burden on me as a female. I was made to feel that I had done something wrong because it could lead to other things happening, ugly things, that it was in my control to prevent. I had done something morally wrong that I did not understand but which had a profound effect on me.
Shame is a powerful emotion. Toni Morrison writes about shame. It is what distorts and deflects the life of her character, Frank, in Home
: "How he had covered his guilt and shame with big-time mourning for his dead buddies. Day and night he held on to that suffering because it let him off the hook... Now the hook was deep inside his chest and nothing would dislodge it."
When we allow ourselves to feel shame, we are viewing ourselves through a moral lens. A powerful lens of inordinate magnitude and power. When we are marked at a very early age with shame, a trigger later in life can cause it to manifest, often disproportionately so to the trigger. I'm not a psychologist; I have lived this. I felt shame that I might have crossed some unspeakable and invisible boundary, that I'd made an awful mistake without knowing it, even after much contemplation. How would I ever know or be able to trust my instincts ever again?
Taking a chance and succeeding means surviving the risk. I didn't. Not this time.
Sloane is toughening up and so am I.
To say or not to say? That is, however, still the question...
Disclaimer, of sorts...
I blew off so much indignation in my last blog post
that I felt weakened by the experience of having written it. Les fortes émotions
, to use a French term, are exhausting. What could be more exhausting than emotional fatigue? So, basically, food for thought this time around.
I had the great pleasure of attending the Oakland East Bay Symphony's final concert of the season last Friday, May 3. I came away feeling as though I had gotten considerably more than my money's worth (tickets were donated by a dear friend). Joking aside, it was an evening of seemingly disparate musical adventures lacking a central theme. Highlights for me were the countertenor, William Sauerland
, who performed the alto voice in Bach's Magnificat in D Major, and Terrence Wilson
, the pianist in Beethoven's powerhouse 5th Concerto in E flat Major, dubbed the "Emperor Concerto". I might add that my daughter, my companion for the evening, particularly enjoyed the Pacific Boychoir as well. Sauerland was a rare treat for me, as it also reminded me of the prominence castrati used to enjoy back in J. S. Bach's time. Wilson's performance was simply stunning. I've always enjoyed the shear power and magnitude of the first and third movements of this concerto. However, his interpretation of the Adagio, so deeply contrasted, moved me more than any I've heard. Played with sensitivity and intelligence, my eyes sometimes closed, sometimes wandered to the ceiling in order to savor the full beauty of his rendition.
This blog post is not, however, a review of the musical event, as I am not a music critic. I'm at best an amateur musician who knows what she enjoys musically. For a decent and on point critical review, I refer you to Joshua Kosman's insightful article
published on SF Gate's website.The matter causing concern:
I'm so accustomed to seeing a sea of white faces both on stage and in the audience at a symphony concert that I've become desensitized to the experience. It took a while for my consciousness
to adjust—time to read the program and put a few cough drops in my jacket pocket for quick retrieval. After my awareness adjusted to its environment, as when one walks into a dark movie theater from the brightly lit lobby...or, vice versa, from a place of total darkness into the blinding light of a bright sun, a sadness swept over me. As the auditorium filled with symphony goers—many of retirement age and a representative number in wheelchairs or otherwise assisted—and the performance area filled with musicians and choristers, the lack of people of color became glaringly apparent. Even if, evidently, the Pacific Boychoir, founded and based in Oakland, has members of various ethnicities, they, as far as I could tell, did not appear on stage to perform.
Initially I thought it was an interesting situation—the only African Americans on the program (unless I overlooked someone, which is highly likely from the wonderful orchestra seats just seven rows from the stage) were among the principles: Michael Morgan, OEBS' illustrious director; Shawnette Sulker, soprano soloist with the Bach Magnificat, and Terrence Wilson.
Until I recalled that similar scenarios existed back in the day when the entertainers were often African American (i.e., Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, etc.) and the audience exclusively European American—I'm making an effort to move away from the term 'white' because it is meaningless outside a politico-social construct and doesn't exist without its counterpart, 'black', much like there is no 'good' without 'evil', no 'up' without 'down', all relative opposites on a dichotomous scale; there is no gene for 'white' which isn't even technically a color, but rather a poor showing of melanin which is
spoken for in our DNA—because African Americans were not allowed in the audience and, after performing, had to leave the room or lounge or the concert halls entering and exiting through the back doors when they did so.
So there is no question that African Americans have been 'allowed' to entertain European Americans (this will take some getting used to because the 'punch' [=tension] is gone—in a 'black' person's mouth, the word 'white' can often feel loaded with meaning sometimes intentional and sometimes not that centuries of institutionalized then de facto
slavery [=segregation and Jim Crow] caused to evolve) for a long time as long as it didn't offend, for example, European women's sensibilities (Little Richard was forbidden to gyrate in front of them but it was okay for Elvis Presley).
We are in Oakland, California. Oakland might very well be the most ethnically diverse city in the country. In 2010, according to the Census
, Oakland was 34.5% "white" (up from 31.3% in 2000) and 28.0% "black or African American" (down from 35.7% in 2000). These are interesting statistics in and of themselves (that's another blog post). The remaining 37.5% is spread among other ethnicities.
I realize it is not realistic to expect the ethnic makeup of the orchestra and the boys' choir to reflect the ethnic makeup of Oakland; there is no requirement that they hail from Oakland to be members of those organizations. Nor should there be. Opportunity should be for all. The percentage of guest artists came close to expectations: three European Americans and two African Americans (60% and 40%). But, excluding Maestro Morgan, even if there were two or three African Americans in an orchestra of at least eighty musicians, that figure would not even match the ethnic percentage of African Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area (roughly 6.5%).
Obviously, circumstances are different now than they were in first half of last century and prior. No one is prevented from attending any public event where one pays an admission to be entertained, be it in sports or in the arts. It can be expensive to attend the symphony in a non nose-bleed section. So sometimes certain groups of individuals are priced out of the pleasure of attending. I was told quite recently that when you watch basketball on television, when the camera pans the spectator stands, the faces are nearly exclusively European American, shocking when you consider how much African Americans love and participate in the sport. The tickets are far more expensive (yet another blog post) than the symphony or opera unless you don't mind lugging around a pair of binoculars and a box of Kleenex.
As I watched the performance the other night I couldn't help but be distracted by the absence of people of color in the Boychoir (I didn't even see any Asians), and among the orchestra members (that I could discern, though there were very likely Asian members). But that doesn't matter. What does matter is the overall impact. The effect was great enough to leave me wondering about the many historical and social issues that would lead to such an outcome and have me scratching my head when it was over after what had been a delightfully fulfilling evening of music-making.
My outrage is so outraged it is effectively silenced.
Over-stimulated into a constant state of smoldering, there are no longer any fibers of my being to become appalled at the immoral and egregious atrocities inflicted upon humanity by self-appointed gods on earth. I'm burned out. Consumed. Not quite spontaneous combustion, and certainly not self-immolation. But who cares when the effect is the same? When people set themselves on fire, or purposely starve to death, they are crying desperately for help, for someone to take notice, for someone to care.
Many years ago I read Jonathan Kozol's Amazing Grace: The lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation. I've misplaced my copy—I've moved twice since reading it—but one thing I came away with was a glimpse into how wealthy people live with themselves and watch as their riches engender more wealth while a lack of opportunity, education and means engender greater poverty all around them. At their feet. Kozol's focus was on New York City, but the scenario is replicated not just throughout the nation, but globally. They learn not to see us, to make sure we are off their radar. This is why the 'master'minds and perpetrators of the slave trade industry chose to dehumanize and reduce to the status of soul-less animals the human beings they enslaved.
When I peered down from atop the then Sears Tower in Chicago, people didn't look like people. They looked like tiny insects. Ants. With great imagination and for the purpose of, let's say creating a short story, I could pretend like they were just ants moving about their daily lives. Others with different agendas could pretend for different reasons. The farther you 'rise' above others the less they resemble human beings from your vantage point. What you can't see, why should you care? What you don't acknowledge, why should you want to? One could claim these 'vanished' beings have no souls, that they have nothing in common with oneself, that their needs, no matter how real, will pass some day, that they don't deserve anymore than they have or they wouldn't be under the sole of your shoe. Which is why it would be better for them to be put out of their misery, sooner rather than later. —Lets have some fun! Let's play Russian Roulette by placing a fertilizer plant in the middle of a town or allow a town to grow up around the fertilizer plant like they used to do around churches or bodies of water, at the same time creating a natural source of labor that translates into money. Let them work in unsafe factory buildings for pennies lining clothing while we line our pockets—because there are too many of them anyway—and be put out of their misery when the structure collapses killing hundreds of them, mostly women this time. Oops!
We no longer have aspiring demigods. We have all out deity wannabes aching to increase their chokehold on humanity. It used to be a territory, a nation, a continent to be conquered and ruled by ruthless, power-hungry self-appointed leaders and their bands of marauders. Now it is the planet itself, and damned be any living, breathing spoils! The days of emperors and pharaohs who would make claim to god-like status live on. They hold our lives and our futures in their hands. And they won't stop until they transcend the status of demigods to that of deities.
Mythologies created systems of belief at the center of which was either one God Almighty followed by his rank and file or a family of Gods getting along as dysfunctionally as families on earth typically do. And among modern mythologies is one that would declare itself ancient, at the helm of which is a single all powerful god, worshipped and torn asunder by three rivaling sets of descendants of the same parent faith. One branch begot the religious culture in which I was raised. When I speak of 'God', I'm speaking of the one I was taught about and told to bow down to and worship, him and only him, because he is a jealous god. A vengeful god. Enigmatic and tyrannical. So I ask, why, if one would be God, why choose those qualities that seem most in line with destroying the vast majority of mankind? Oh, correct. You can't plunder ruthlessly with honesty, moral purpose, and a love of humanity as sidekicks.
Earth. A new iteration of the beehive, the anthill, the plantation. Hell in the hive, hell in the hill, hell in the fields. Hell on earth. You might not identify with this view of the world. The concept might not resonate with you. However, because we are living in a hell doesn't mean we are 'unhappy', that our goals in life are stripped from us, that we are left without hope even if, in the majority of cases, without means. Happiness is relative. Ignorance is bliss. What you don't know can't hurt you. We are drone ants, workers bees. Slaves. We are expendable. We are ninety-nine percent of the human population.
We have modern iterations of ancient gods. We have individuals with household names (e.g., the Koch brothers who, by the way, own the fertilizer industry pretty near lock, stock and barrel); we have corporations (like Walmart that has connections to the Dhaka, Bangladesh tragedy), and political entities (the über conservative right wing - the list is far too long) for example. We have those who hoard the planet's wealth while destroying it at the same time, melting its resources—like Vulcan in his forge--into gold with which to line their pockets. The new Poseidon—the monolith that refuses to admit to global warming because to do so would mean pulling its hand from that cookie jar—is destroying the environment by conjuring up earthquake after earthquake, violent extremes in weather, floods, tornados and hurricanes where they were once either non-existent or infrequent. We talk about acts of nature, meaning, generally, destructive phenomena due to no one's fault. But when the heightened devastation of destructive acts of nature are directly linked to the willful hands of mankind with an ax to grind, then we must speak of destructive acts of human nature. The banks and financial institutions where the new gods hide their fortunes are the newest treasures of Mount Olympus, the crown jewels of the new oligarchy.
The trickle down effect of greed and abuse affects our everyday lives in ways our limited ability and resources do not allow us to entertain, to make the connections. We can see that greed led to the collapse of the eight-story factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, or the explosion of the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, or the crashing of jet planes for lack of proper maintenance. The stock and housing market crashes, the spilling of thousands of tons of crude oil into our oceans, seas and gulfs. We can make those connections.
But how many of us realize that the seeming 'choices' we are given as consumers have been decided on by others as no more and no less of what they want us to consume? Perhaps this too sounds obvious. But think about it. There is no freedom of choice. We are manipulated and controlled from inception to production to consumption.
When the rubble is piled so high that the earth becomes a wasteland, the gods will get in their spaceships that only they can afford and sail high above the planet into new territories, leaving the rest of us to rot in a hell created by them. I know, the scenario is far from original. It's just that it seems to get closer and closer to the truth.
Zeus overthrew his father, Cronus, to claim the throne for himself as sole ruler of the kingdom of heaven. Are we really willing to allow it to come down to this? I'm just sayin'...
I don't recall ever going to see a movie on the first day it hit theaters in my area. Even so, this time was neither planned nor anticipated. It simply turns out that I have been going to the movies more frequently in the last months and felt like a movie. I had also seen trailers, liked what I saw, and promised myself not to miss it.
It had been ages since I had seen "The Jackie Robinson Story", filmed in 1950 and starring Robinson as himself, and recalled practically none of the 'autobiopic'
when I decided to watch it again for comparison with "42". Before
going to the Renaissance Grand Lake where "42" is playing. My primary interest was to see how white racism in America would be portrayed on the silver screen either in truth-telling or filmmaking from one era to the next.
The voice over starts by telling us that "this is the story of a boy with a dream. But more than that it is the story of an American boy and a dream that's truly American". We see a black boy in the foreground walking down the street away from us, deep cuffs in his jeans, camera undoubtedly on a trolly to keep pace. It is 1928. An identical scene ends the film but this time the boy's image is paled with a projection of the Statue of Liberty superimposed.
The action begins with a bunch of young boys heading out onto a field to field balls being batted to them by two white men. Needless to say we see flashes of Jackie's budding talents that will lead him to prowess in basketball, football, track, and baseball, the latter his strongest suit, although the others are nowhere near shabby. "Hit me one, mister..." he says to the batter. "What do you want?" "Ground it. Line it. Anything", comes little Jackie's reply, and he fields three different balls—with bare hands. All the other kids, with mits, are white. It is presumably Cairo, Georgia. It's as wholesome a scene as any you would find in "Lassie".
The flipping of the pages of a calendar indicates leaps in the passage of time. Before we know it, the action has progressed to 1937, stopping along the way for cameo-like autobiographic sub-actions: playing all four sports for the UCLA Bruins; joining up with Uncle Sam who sends him a draft notice; getting scouted by the Black Panthers Negro team and playing for them for a while. Branch Rickey, Brooklyn Dodgers president, then enters the picture. This is pretty much where "42" starts. As David Germaine writes in his blog review
, ""42" plays out safely and methodically, centering on the two most critical years in his rise to the majors and letting that time unfold with slow, sturdy momentum".
I'm in agreement with film critic Marshall Fine
when he says of "42" that "Helgeland doesn't dwell on the endless barrage of racist bile that Robinson (and his wife) endured, but he doesn't shy from it either", and he credits this restraint with lending more meaning and more power to Robinson's achievements. In the "Jackie Robinson Story", white racist attitudes are depicted in Robinson being shunned by the other players when he shows up for spring practice with the Montreal hopefuls. He moves from group to group—always with a gorgeous smile—when they pretend not to see him there, glove extended, waiting for a chance to be a team member. In another scene, the entire team is refused hotel accommodations when on the road, and half the team signs a petition at some point saying they want him gone.
"Nigger" is uttered one time throughout the entire movie, the slur being replaced by "shine" or "black" on occasion (make no mistake, African Americans did not take lightly to being called "black"; it was an insult in those days). The manager of the Phillies' was shown heckling Robinson with a shoe shine bag from his dugout which, of course, he had to go through the trouble of finding in the first place. And one of the Philly players jeered at him by biting wide and nasty into a large slice of watermelon, while two fans—considerably older than teenagers—pass a black kitten with a rope around his neck over the wall and onto the bench near Robinson. Is this why when Ruby Dee who plays Jackie's wife says that she is afraid to go out walking by herself because of what she has overheard certain white men saying, her hostess responds, "Oh they talk big but they don't really mean it"? Really? In Florida, the out-Lynching-est state in the union? I'm wondering if director William Joseph Heineman truly meant that as some form of dramatic understatement.
On the other hand, "nigger" is repeated so many times in "42" that it finally manages to take on the mammoth-like racist proportions intended. Here, the Phillies' manager—racism incarnate (sorry but they picked the right face to play the part!)—repeatedly shouts the slur to Robinson each time he's at bat, varying only slightly the monotonous jeering, "Hey, nigger, nigger, nigger", "go home nigger", "you don't belong here nigger", "this is a white man's game, nigger". This is more like it, the hatred and venom that was prevalent during those years preceding the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in 1954. And how many of us know that baseball became
a segregated sport in 1889?
It is not unexpected that racism in an American-made film in 1950 would whitewash racism to little more than mild irritation and the crankiness of spoiled children. It wouldn't be American to tarnish the reality of living in America if you look a certain way. I have a different understanding of what the patrons and employees in the roadside diner might have really said to Robinson when he walked in looking for food and a place to wash up for his black teammates. Even today behind closed doors the word "nigger" is used far more often than people are willing to admit. It might be understandable that "The Jackie Robinson Story" portrayed Robinson as mild-tempered and easy-going. Perhaps he was. But would he have also internalized the ugliness of racial hatred so that we have no sense of his inner turmoil? He comes off almost as passive, a step above the happy-go-lucky Negro. In "42", Robinson, portrayed by Chadwick Boseman, is self-possessed and almost edgy, at least until he can't take it any more and explodes just inside the stadium tunnel, breaking and shredding his bat in multiple swings against the concrete walls. It is a poignant moment that we all feel intensely. The racism in "42" is much more realistically depicted. Yet, as Zaki Hasan, who finds "42" "unexceptional" points out in his review, "Other than a few cursory nods...we don't get those moments of doubt, of fear, of panic as the full import of what he was attempting dawns on him".
When I was a child, my dad and his brothers used to play ball when we would go on picnics.
One uncle, I'm given to understand, even played in a Negro Minor League prior to marriage.
The fact is they were talented athletes too and when up at bat they would hit the ball farther than any of the other men there. It would sail long long long long long... And we the kids would stare in awe, mouths open, as an inexplicable sense of pride swept through us. Imagine what black people of all ages must have felt when they saw Jackie Robinson playing on the field with white men and rising to the top as the absolute best among them.
Jonathan Kim writes of "42"in his Rethink Review
, "There's something beautiful about watching black fans watch Robinson, so filled with hope and pride as they hang on his every move and are inspired by something they never thought they'd see in their lifetimes". Which is exactly what I experienced when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008. Whatever anyone else might have felt, I cried like a baby because I thought I would never see it in my lifetime.
One cannot explain that kind of joy, pride or wonderment.