Category: arts

Dangerous memories

December 14, 2010

I came across an interesting “diary” blog post at Booman Tribune, one of the sites I read daily, about a memory Rosa Parks recalled of an experience she had at about age 6. It’s on page 2 of her autobiography (Rosa Parks: My Story), so you can deduce the import it had for her.

“One of my earliest memories of childhood is hearing my family talk about the remarkable time that a white man treated me like a regular little girl, not a little black girl. It was right after World War I, around 1919. I was five or six years old. Moses Hudson, the owner of the plantation next to our land in Pine Level, Alabama, came out from the city of Montgomery to visit and stopped by the house. Moses Hudson had his son-in-law with him, a soldier from the North They stopped in to visit my family. We southerners called all northerners Yankees in those days. The Yankee soldier patted me on the head and said I was such a cute little girl. Later that evening my family talked about how the Yankee soldier had treated me like I was just another little girl, not a little black girl. In those days in the South white people didn’t treat little black children the same as little white children. And old Mose Hudson was very uncomfortable about the way the Yankee soldier treated me. Grandfather said he saw old Mose Hudson’s face turn red as a coal of fire. Grandfather laughed and laughed.”

Just in case it’s not clear to the reader what this story has to do with Mrs. Parks’ arrest in December 1955, she explains: “There had been a few times in my life when I had been treated by white people like a regular person, so I knew what that felt like. It was time that other white people started treating me that way.”

I have not yet read this book, so this particular reflection by Ms. Parks is new to me. But I completely understand how something that happens to you at 6 can be one of the most critical moments in your life (go read the diary to understand the point of my title here, “dangerous memories”). Here’s my comment to the post which hopefully explains how I can say I know that for sure:

This story is particularly interesting to me. When I was in the first grade, in 1959 southern Georgia, and just starting to learn to read and write, I went to a friend’s house to play and took up a blackboard to show off my new skills. I tried to write a sentence with the word “air” in it, but I didn’t know how to spell it. The only adult in the house was the black maid of my friend’s family. So I asked her how to spell “air.”

I remember distinctly that she was ironing sheets at the time — white sheets, ironically (all sheets were white and flat back in those prehistoric days) — I remember it because we didn’t iron sheets at my house (but then, we didn’t have a maid).

Anyway, I went up to this woman and asked her, “how do you spell ‘air’?” I didn’t think anything of it, I had asked such questions of all the adults in my life and been given unremarkable but satisfactory answers. But this woman paused and looked at me with a look I can’t describe, I think it must have contained both shame and anger, and said, “I don’t know how.”

Although I had never consciously considered the racist culture around me before, in that look and statement, I was stunned into an awareness of it. I knew without a second’s thought that the reason she didn’t know was that she didn’t know as much reading and writing as I knew halfway through the first grade, and I knew the reason for that was because of the color of her skin.

I don’t remember a lot of my childhood, which was not a very good one, but I have always remembered this incident. I’ve been a activist for peace and social justice practically all my adult life, and I see that moment as the start of that process. So I know exactly what Rosa Parks is talking about here. Sometimes it only takes a second for your whole life to be set in motion.

It’s kind of crazy that I clicked over to read this diary at all and found this treasure, because I actually never read the member diaries at Booman Tribune, just the front pagers. Any member can post a diary, and such diaries that are recommended by other site members are listed in the sidebar, and I rarely notice them, much less click the links. But this diary was authored by user “massappeal” and I took a couple of writing classes with the playwright who wrote a play called Mass Appeal that was made into a film starring Jack Lemon (one of my meager claims to fame, LOL). I had kind of schoolgirl crush on him. So I thought, hmmm, could it be …? Probably not (though the Catholic theology thrown casually into the diary suggests a remaining chance), but I got something good out of that click anyway. Life is funny that way.

There are (so far) two other diaries posted by massappeal that also look at some of Rosa Parks’ history from the book.

David Rovics does OKC, awesomely, but probably wonders why he bothered

November 20, 2010

And of course, few in OKC bother to support this talented progressive singer songwriter. Next time someone complains that OKC doesn’t get included in such tours, I’ll just ask, well, were you at David Rovics (or David Swanson, or Max Blumenthal and David Cobb — all outstanding local progressive events that were under-attended)? These people talk to each other, you know, though I really don’t want to speculate about that conversation.

Yes it’s a niche audience he appeals to, but that niche exists here and its members need to turn off the fucking tv and get their priorities straight. Changing this backwater into a reasonable, respectable, non-embarrassing place to live, work and play isn’t going to happen by itself.

Yet the concert was a smash sellout compared to the Let Them Heal demo earlier in the evening. Ah well, everyone’s just tired of politics and war, I guess, and of course, Obama’s just going to sprinkle magic liberal dust and make everything perfect without our help. I wish I could drop out as well, in some ways my life would be so much better. … but, it would also be a lot less interesting, and what the hell would I have to blog about.

This was my favorite from the night’s playlist:

He also did songs about the Gaza flotilla action, the Iraq war, uprisings here and there, Jesus, anarchists and love. His voice is not bad, but nothing to rave about — however, his songwriting is astute, polished and subtle but powerful. He was passionate, non cynical and humorous.

I hope he comes back through before too long, though I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t.

P.S. Other attenders were similarly impressed.

The older CDs are available on iTunes as well.

Hank Williams given special Pulitzer, Meryl Streep elected to Academy

April 13, 2010

Any award Special Citation for Hank Williams (Sr) doesn’t really need an explanation.

New York City, April 12 – The Pulitzer Prize Board has awarded a posthumous Special Citation to country music icon Hank Williams for his lifetime achievement as a musician, Columbia University announced today.
The citation praises Williams for “his craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life.”

That the writer/singer of “Honky Tonkin'” and “Hey, Good Lookin'” would get an award like the Pulitzer once would have been sacrilege.

“The citation, above all, recognizes the lasting impact of Williams as a creative force that influenced a wide range of other musicians and performers,” said Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. “At the same time, the award highlights the Board’s desire to broaden its Music Prize and recognize the full range of musical excellence that might not have been considered in the past.”

Shorter Gissler: “We used to be artsy fartsy snobs!”

My mother knew Williams in Montgomery in the late 30s, or knew of him, somewhat crossed paths. In her mid teens she played steel guitar (“Hawaiian guitar” back then) on a radio program and says he, a couple of years younger, hung out around the station, and at other music venues. She had no idea of his amazing talent, though. She can be a little snobby, I have to say, so she probably didn’t give him the time of day, much less a good listen. Who’s sorry now?

Also in opening-the-arts-to-the-lowly-masses news today, Meryl Streep was honored with a membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. This is a pretty exclusive club and she’s the first artist elected solely for acting, and this is seen either as the collapse of culture, or the democratization of art, depending on your point of view.

The inductees [of the special category Streep’s membership is in] demonstrate again how far the academy has changed from its frankly snobbish roots, when modernists, women, non-whites and Jews were not welcome and the presence of a “lowly” actress, even one as talented as Streep, might have set off mass resignations.

And the gate crashing continues.

Siskel and Ebert outtakes

February 28, 2010

Oh. My. God. This had me wiping tears off my cheeks AND my keyboard, it’s so hilarious. Maybe to fully appreciate it, you had to have watched them religiously for years like I did, enjoying the tension between the two movie lovers who couldn’t seem to agree on anything.

I often wondered what they talked about during the commercials, so to speak. Well, now we know.

By the time Gene Siskel died much too early, they really had bonded and loved each other, though maybe they didn’t say it, or recognize it until Gene was sick and the writing was on the wall. Roger Ebert has memorialized his partner and friend so beautifully since then, in a way we should all hope to be honored when we are gone.

Now Roger himself is ill, has lost his voice, but still writes and his real Voice rings pretty clear on issues beyond celluloid and art. He has stood strong to rant against the violations of our constitution, and the immorality of war. You can’t keep a spirit like that down.

That pair has brought me a lot of insight, pleasure and laughter over the years. These outtakes — biting, argumentative, silly, make me love those guys all the more.

Poem I wrote 20 years ago about Tank Man

June 4, 2009

Most of the world was moved by Tank Man, the unknown rebel to the Chinese government’s violent crackdown on the student democracy movement in Tienanmen Square during the Spring of 1989.

But I was moved intensely enough write a poem that those who have seen my small body of work say is probably the best I’ve written. Anyway, I really identified with the man, since I was working then (much as now) as virtually a full time peace and justice activist. His solitary statement was a symbol of individual resistance, the importance of even just one person making a stand for what is right.

Today is the 20th anniversary of Tank Man’s stand. In some ways, it seems to me like much longer, but I also feel like it was not but a year or two ago. Most of those 20 years have not been particularly productive ones for me — but that’s another post. It’s a time to remember, and to be grateful that democracy continues to be sought and practiced more and more around the world, however imperfectly. Some of the students who were at Tienanmen Square 20 years ago even say that China itself has become better (an article in today’s Oklahoman quotes a man who now teaches as OSU), though there are many who would argue with that. There are protests taking place in cities around the world, to call for real change for the people in China.

The fact that China has blocked a lot of internet sites for the past week or so doesn’t indicate much improvement to me — except for the fact that the intrinsically democratic medium of the Internet is a bloody headache for tyrants to control. In my opinion, if the US really wanted to spread democracy around the globe, they would make broadband freely available via satellites to every spot on the globe.

Images of Tank Man are continuing to be newly revealed — enhancing our understanding of that moment — and art created. Because passion for and commitment to love, peace and human rights will always inspire.

So here’s my little contribution to the genre. I have only altered it from the version I produced in a few hours 20 years ago in that I removed Roman numerals over each stanza, which I now do not know why I thought was a good idea. It was previously published in the Palmetto Post, a newspaper of the Florida Green Party.

(I’ve posted the poem as an image, because I have not figured out yet how I want to publish my poetry, if at all, and would like to lessen the chance of it being used until that time. I would ask that if you want to share it, that you link to this post rather than download the image. Contact me for other arrangements. Thanks.)

Looking back (and forth) at The Grapes of Wrath

April 29, 2009

Marking the 70th anniversary of the publication of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, today The Oklahoman had a story — front page — about the evolution of the term “Okie” from slur (intentional or perceived) to proud label of strength against adversity. A sidebar story looked at reactions to the book through history.

Quoted in the article (and this really impressed me, so credit where it’s due), was Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a native “Okie” who now lives in San Francisco. They mentioned her book, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie, which is certainly appropriate for the topic at hand, but she’s a radical lefty (the subtitle of her site is “feminist, revolutionary, historian”), so getting a plug in The Oklahoman was unexpected (by me, anyway).

OPUBCO also produced a video about the how residents of Sallisaw, Oklahoma — where Steinbeck’s fictional Joad family was from — feel about the use of their town in the book (see below). The Dust Bowl didn’t hit Sallisaw much, and I suspect the town was used because of the emotional resonance of its name. Anyway, many of them are still miffed about it, and profess not to like the book or film, though it’s doubtful they’ve read it since a teacher in the video seems to indicate that they are not made to read the iconic novel, and can substitute another Steinbeck work. That way it’s much easier to continue to perpetrate the myth that Steinbeck was maligning poor folk from Oklahoma.

Anyway, it’s worth a look at the graphically enhanced online feature that expands the sidebar story from the dead tree edition into somewhat broader overview of the book’s history of controversy and acclaim.

‘Grapes of Wrath’ 70th anniversary

April 14, 2009

On April 14, 1939, The Grapes of Wrath was released, to immediate public and critical success. And to immediate controversy. In Oklahoma, the book was sometimes misunderstood, or perhaps understood all too well, and thus maligned for craven political purposes. Anyone who reads the book with even a scintilla of awareness can recognize that the Joad family is admirable, endowed by Steinbeck to embody and represent human decency and compassion, Tom Joad being among the most noble characters in all of literature.

Steinbeck’s work quite appropriately became a classic despite the efforts to suppress it, and its inspiration and message — righteous outrage at injustice — thus continues to be spread to every generation of young people who read it. It certainly informed my early political development, and I am happy to know that it continues to be the incubus for democratic social consciousness, much more so than the works of Upton Sinclair, which dealt with similar themes, but have not aged as well.

On this anniversary, I’m glad to see it is being not only recalled for its historic value, but for how its theme speaks to the current economic crisis.

In this sense then, The Grapes of Wrath is a prophetic novel, rooted in the economic and environmental tragedies of the Great Depression, but speaking just as directly to the harsh realities of our own time.

At this moment of global economic meltdown, when the whole world is gripped by severe financial recession (much of it caused by rapacious greed, fiscal malfeasance, and corporate arrogance), when groups around the globe are in migration from one kind of tyranny or another, when the gap between rich and poor seems insurmountable, and when homelessness and dispossession caused by widespread financial failure and mortgage foreclosure is rapidly rising in the US and elsewhere – symbolised by shantytowns and tent cities on the outskirts of major metropolitan areas – then it is fitting to think of The Grapes of Wrath as our contemporary narrative, our 21st Century jeremiad.

But Steinbeck can still say it best. From Chapter 19:

“And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”

Emphasis mine.

Indy film an intense Oklahoma love story

January 27, 2009

Sterlin Harjo, an Oklahoma filmmaker, had his latest movie, Barking Water, premiere at Sundance on Jan. 17. Here’s the synopsis:

Before Oklahoma was a red state, it was known as the Land of the Red People, described by the Choctaw phrase Okla Humma. In his sophomore film, Sterlin Harjo takes viewers on a road trip through his own personal Oklahoma, which includes an eclectic mix of humanity. Irene and Frankie have a difficult past, but Frankie needs Irene to help him with one task. He needs to get out of the hospital and go home to his daughter and new grandbaby to make amends. Irene had been his one, true, on-again, off-again love until they parted ways for good. But to make up for the past, Irene agrees to help him in this trying time.With steady and graceful performances by Richard Ray Whitman as Frankie and Casey Camp-Horinek as Irene, this story takes viewers for a ride in the backseat of Frankie and Irene’s Indian car, listening to their past and the rhythmic soundtrack that sets the beat for a redemptive road journey. Harjo wraps us in the charm and love of Oklahoma through the people and places Irene and Frankie visit along the way. In this sparingly sentimental and achingly poignant film, Harjo claims his place as one of the most truthful and honest voices working in American cinema today. Barking Water is an expression of gratitude for the ability to have lived and loved.
Bird Runningwater. Sundance Film Festival 2009 Catalog

A Q & A with Harjo at Sundance. And the just released trailer:

“Wouldn’t you rather be with someone with a working car?” So smart and real. And the actor, Richard Ray Whitman is incredibly sexy. So, um, “No!”

Barking Water looks spare and incredibly alive. Can’t wait to see it. No indication of when it might be in theaters. But look for it.

My introduction to Pete Seeger

January 20, 2009

Seeing the (banned on YouTube) video of Pete Seeger singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial Sunday made me think about how I first heard about him. It’s a pretty weird way, I think.

I was a typical 60s teenybopper — I loved the Monkees and read Tiger Beat and 16. My favorite Monkee was Peter, and in Tiger Beat, I learned how intellectual and politically passionate he was — so different than his character on the show. In one TB article, he talked about liking folk music, and how much he admired Pete Seeger. Although at the time I probably lived within 100 miles of Pete Seeger, I’d never heard of him.

In other seemingly forgettable TB articles about Peter I remember him saying he drove a beat up foreign car, Saab I think, because it was safer and more environmental or something, which made me think he was just so cool — which in retrospect he was, since this was before the first Earth Day even.

Anyway, I wish I could say I immediately went and listened to Seeger, discovered Dylan, Patti Smith and Lou Reed and left the Monkees to the other sheltered suburban girls, but that was not the case. I didn’t go in that direction until several years later in college. But don’t knock the Monkees, I can’t be the only one whom they eventually led into subversive activity. (Or maybe it was just those of us who chose Peter as “our” Monkee! And, yes, we divvied them up; it’s not like you could have two girls in the same clique liking Micky!)

If you haven’t seen the brilliant and moving documentary about Pete Seeger, The Power of Song, I urge you to do so. I wrote about it previously and just can’t recommend it enough. Here’s a preview:

Back in 2002, I met the three still-touring Monkees (Peter, Davy and Micky for those who don’t follow these things) after a concert in Clearwater, FL. I have a photo somewhere. It would really be perfect for this post, but I have no idea where it is.

By the way, when Peter Tork was imprisoned in the 70s (for marijuana possession), he served his time at the penitentiary in El Reno, Oklahoma.