28 September 2007

PS: In case you were wondering....

...why some black and other people distrust 'the gay movement' (and that includes many of us who are LGBTQ), this response by James Kirchick to the Human Rights Campaign's support of the Jena 6 should clarify things a bit:

It is regrettable that an organization purporting to represent the interests of gay people would defend violent hooligans as an act of obeisance to the “civil rights community.” Whether or not the saga of Jena, La., speaks to the racial disparities in our country’s justice system, it is most certainly not a civil rights struggle akin to the Stonewall uprising or the Selma marches. The moral standing of the people involved in those historic events was absolute; the gay men at the Stonewall Inn and the marchers at Selma were violently set upon by police merely for peacefully assembling. The Jena 6 ganged up on a kid and sent him to the hospital. There is no good reason why gays should be party to this shameless display of historical ignorance and exaggerated grievance.

27 September 2007

Poetry and/in The News

Kudos and thanks to poet/doctor Peter Pereira for remembering the 50th Anniversary of school integration in Arkansas and the Little Rock Nine with Cyrus Cassells wonderful, heatbreaking 'Soul Make a Path Through Shouting':

With their jerry-rigged faith,
Their spear on the American flag,
How could they dare to believe
You’re someone sacred?:
Nigger, burr-headed girl,
Where are you going?

I’m just going to school

Fallout at the Poetry Society of America over the awarding of their Frost Medal to John Hollander (....and it's now "McCarthyism" to protest against a man who says that West African, Mexican and Central American are "cultures without literatures" among other things? Hmmm....)

And as for this:

"I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. It was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship. It was the same. And that's really what this society is really all about now here in the U.S.A. There's no difference....There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'MF-er, I want some more ice tea.' It was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people were sitting there ordering and having fun and there wasn't any craziness at all."

not to mention this

You know, and I went to the concert by Anita Baker at Radio City Music Hall, and the crowd was 50/50, black/white, and the blacks were well-dressed. And she came out -- Anita Baker came out on the stage and said, "Look, this is a show for the family. We're not gonna have any profanity here. We're not gonna do any rapping here." The band was excellent, but they were dressed in tuxedoes, and this is what white America doesn't know, particularly people who don't have a lot of interaction with black Americans. They think that the culture is dominated by Twista, Ludacris, and Snoop Dogg.

...from He Who Shall Not Be Named, I feel moved to provide a poetic "response" from the late Gwendolyn Brooks

I love those little booths at Benvenuti's

They get to Benvenuti's. There are booths
To hide in while observing tropical truths
About this -- dusky folk, so clamorous!
So colorfully incorrect,
So amorous,
So flatly brave!
Boothed-in, one can detect,

One knows and scarcely knows what to expect.

What antics, knives, what lurching dirt; what ditty-
Dirty, rich, carmine, hot, not bottled up,
Straining in sexual soprano, cut
And praying in the bass, partial, unpretty.

They sit, sup,
(Whose friends, if not themselves, arrange
To rent in Venice "a very large cabana,
Small palace," and eat mostly what is strange.)
They sit, they settle; presently are met
By the light heat, the lazy upward whine
And lazy croaky downward drawl of "Tanya."
And their interiors sweat.
They lean back in the half-light, stab their stares
At: walls, panels of imitation oak
With would-be marbly look; linoleum squares
Of dusty rose and brown with little white splashes,
White curls; a vendor tidily encased;
Young yellow waiter moving with straight haste,
Old oaken waiter, lolling and amused;
Some paper napkins in a water glass;
Table, initialed, rubbed, as a desk in school.

They stare. They tire. They feel refused,
Feel overwhelmed by the subtle treasons!
Nobody here will take the part of jester.

The absolute stutters, and the rationale
Stoops off in astonishment.
But not gaily
And not with their consent.

They play "They All Say I'm The Biggest Fool"
And "Voo Me On The Vot Nay" and "New Lester
Leaps In"
and "For Sentimental Reasons."

But how shall they tell people they have been
Out Bronzeville way? For all the nickles in
Have not bought savagery or defined a "folk."

The colored people will not "clown."

The colored people arrive, sit firmly down,
Eat their Express Spaghetti, their T-bone steak,
Handling their steel and crockery with no clatter,
Laugh punily, rise, go firmly out the door.

(photo credit, NYTimes)

21 September 2007

Jena 6 Plus 1: Now what?

Very heartening to see the demonstrations in Louisiana and across the country yesterday -- and particularly to see so many teens and young adults taking action (I half joked that even the homeboys on the corner switched to their BLACK XXX t-shirts yesterday). It does my old "Let's March on Washington!" butt good.

A couple of things I noted that I hope this action portends:

The influence of black radio (remember Spanish Language radio was credited with gathering el barrio together for their immigration rallies), blogs and e-mail blasts in getting the word out. Welcome, Civil Rights Movement, to the 21st Century!

(..and speaking of blogs: Where were the white liberal/progressive bloggers? Pam's House Blend Explains it all for you: they were as mired in Iraq as the President, apparently....)

The need (and desire) for newer, YOUNGER leadership. ( “Both Jesse Jackson and Reverend Al Sharpton are old, and we need new leaders to replace them.")

I also found it interesting, at least here, that some speakers brought up the subject of crime and violence against African-American men (and women). A topic very worthy of discussion and action. However, in this city, most of the crime is black-on-black, as opposed to the black vs white tensions Jena exposed. I agree that there is a relationship here: for example, questions surrounding the value we place on African-American lives vs the value placed on white lives, and finding ways to rectify the serious, systemic problems and disparities in the criminal justice system.

But stopping this town from living down to its nickname of "Bodymore, Murderland" is going to take more than just one day of wearing black. I look forward to our using the energy generated yesterday to deal with some of these matters locally all across the country.

20 September 2007

Jena 6 Day

Having spent time in the Deep South/the Gulf Coast, I've seen the kind of locally accepted racial separation the Jena case exposes first hand. I've been in clubs where whites stood on one side of the room, blacks on the other, only meeting on the dance floor, for example. I've been to black areas nicknamed "Africa-town" (and it was not meant in a culturally positive, "We're celebrating our African-American Heritage" kind of way either). And all of us have tales to tell of disparate justice, of one form of sentencing for whites, another for blacks and browns. So I know this kind of place, know the story, I've seen it.

Its past time for this kind of madness to stop.

Thousands rallying to support 'Jena 6'

Tour buses lined roads into Jena, Louisiana, on Thursday as people from across the country came to the small town to show support for the "Jena 6" -- six black teens charged in the beating of a white classmate.

NAACP Information and Petition

Color of Change.org

Baltimore responds

18 September 2007

The New America 2007 -- Modified First Amendment: The Freedom to be Tasered

What country are we living in now? Is this still the United States of America? I'm not sure....Even if the student were a disruptive, self-aggrandizing jerk, did he really deserve this treatment?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Student Tasered, arrested at Kerry forum

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - A university student with a history of taping his own practical jokes was Tasered by campus police and arrested after loudly and repeatedly trying to ask U.S. Sen. John Kerry questions during a campus forum.

YouTube Video here

"In 37 years of public appearances, through wars, protests and highly emotional events, I have never had a dialogue end this way. I believe I could have handled the situation without interruption, but I do not know what warnings or other exchanges transpired between the young man and the police prior to his barging to the front of the line and their intervention. I asked the police to allow me to answer the question and was in the process of responding when he was taken into custody. I was not aware that a taser was used until after I left the building. I hope that neither the student nor any of the police were injured. I regret enormously that a good healthy discussion was interrupted." -- Senator John Kerry

17 September 2007

Postive before Negative

Posts later this week threaten to be somewhat sober and chilling (the national action on the Jena 6 takes place this Thursday, for example), so I thought I'd try to mention some positive items first:

Saturday, Baltimore hosted the commissioning of the Logistics Support Vessel-8 (LSV-8) USAV MG Robert Smalls (United States Army Vessel Major General Robert Smalls), the first Army vessel named after an African-American. Smalls (1839-1915) is one of those great, little known figures in US History that one tends to run into in a footnote or an aside: the First Black Captain of a U.S. Vessel, South Carolina State Legislator and five-term representative of the state in the US Congress, and eventually Collector of Customs in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he had bought and lived in the house where he had once been a slave. Stories like his never cease to amaze, astound, and inspire me.

Unfortunately, I could not make the dedication ceremony, as I was at the Pratt Library's Waverly Branch for the branch's first Book Festival. Excellent weather outside, and inside some great poetry and workshopping by Tonya Maria Matthews and Maryland Poet Laureate Michael S. Glaser. It is very easy to fall into despair over the state of our world, our nation, our city, our block. But to see the young people writing, reading, and performing their work with Tonya, then see adults (and some of the teens) do the same with Michael....well, even someone as prone to melancholy as I am had to be heartened. We forget that kids are just that, kids, and that they need guidance, understanding, care, and intellectual and artistic stimulation to flourish. And the same doesn't hurt folks over the age of consent either!

Finally, on a personal note, I attended two different meetings of black gay men where two different guys said pretty much exactly the same thing: that they had been in discussions with other African American males and were pleasantly surprised at how, in spite of the potential for both to devolve into anger and name calling, both were effective and civilized, and succeeded in resolving the problems the meetings had been called to deal with. I mention this because, again, more often than not, the press covers the negative side of things: if it bleeds, it leads. And we as black people also underestimate ourselves and our brothers and sisters as well, expecting a fight whenever a difficult decision has to be made. I wanted to point this out to indicate that other ways do exist, that we can relate to each other in different ways. We can (and do) treat each other with decency and respect. We should not forget this, and honor it when it happens.

(Photo of kids from Good Shepherd Community Center, Red Hook, Brooklyn fromThe Children's Photographic Collective website)

"Censorship Watch"

Salon.com's Joan Walsh plays 'compare and contrast' and catches Fox TV clipping Sally Field's acceptance speech at the Emmy's. She was floundering, and I thought she was going to pull out her, "You like me, you really really like me," line again, but she didn't. She did however say, "If mothers ruled the world there'd be no more goddamned war," which is apparently too controversial a statement for US audiences to hear. Bless the Canadians for carrying the whole thing.

14 September 2007

(Color) Blind Readers

Q: Are there any stories you've written that you feel have been misunderstood?

A: I've tried to write stories that expect a reader to do some work, to go back and reconsider. I hope there are many layers to explore, not all of which may be tapped in one reading.....I feel that folks might gain from stories....if they look beyond them simply as stories about African-American life. That the characters are Black is important, but not as important as the other ideas and contexts that shape the complexities and realizations in those stories.

William Henry Lewis
(on his collection I Got Somebody in Staunton)

According to my tags on LibraryThing (aka Crack for Book Lovers), my bookshelves are not color-blind. Far and away, I have cataloged more of my books as "African American". My top three in fact (African-American, Poetry, and LGBTQ) could "tell you" quite a lot about me -- this guy likes reading about people like himself: Negroes, Poetizers, and those pesky same-sex types.

I don't think that's 100% accurate, but it's not far from wrong either. I think we all do this. Some folks, however, would rather not admit it.

Author David Anthony Durham recently wrote about the notion of a 'Color Blind Reader', suggesting that the idea was absurd on its face:

I'd be interested to ask each "color blind" reader when was the last time they read something by a black author. They might shrug and say, "I don't know. Remember, I don't pay attention to an author's race." My translation of that - they probably haven't read a black author since a college lit course, because if they had they'd KNOW they had. They’d remember it, and likely they’d have learned things from it....

For white readers that shop at Borders - when was the last time you went browsing for a novel in the "African-American" literature section? They'd likely respond with, "The what? There's not an African-American literature section. Black history section, sure, but..." To which I respond that yes, yes there is a section of Borders - usually a small corner about a shelf and half wide - where the vast majority of fiction by black authors is shelved....I know all of this because that's where my first two novels go - when they're actually stocked at all....So, to the "color blind" reader that has no idea they have NO CHANCE of coming across most black writers in the center of the store... I argue that the fact that you don't read with an awareness of color means that you're being a willing accomplice to institutional segregation. In that regard, being "color blind" also means being blind to a host of inequities, perspectives and realities that you would be able to see if you chose to acknowledge color and to see how much it affects all our lives. Doesn’t make being “color blind” seem so enlightened, does it?

Durham is a VERY good writer (many of us on staff here at the Library are quite high on both him and his work), and I admire him for the range and ambition of his works: Historical Fiction both US (Gabriel's Story and Walk Through Darkness) and World (Pride of Carthage: A Novel of Hannibal), and now S/F - Fantasy (Acacia). I admit to having a weakness for Ambitious Black Writers -- and his personal library (image below) gets me hot as well!:). I find myself agreeing with his take on 'color blindness' (Durham has also posted a number of responses to his post as well.)

Yes, I do keep coming back to people 'like me' in various ways, but in my reading I like to think I've ranged far and wide. Many times it's a conscious decision: I notice I've read a good deal of contemporary work, so I go back to Classics. Feeling overloaded with US voices, I make a decision to sneak some authors across the border. Too many men around? I'll go through a period of reading female authors. I am aware of who I'm reading, where they come from, take into account 'what they are' (gender, orientation, nationality, etc). I have other 'weaknesses' -- Latin American and Spanish authors, for example -- and I'm looking forward to one day immersing myself in Arabic Literature (beyond my crushes on Adonis and Darwish).

A new book by one of my favorite authors arrived at the library as I was thinking about this. Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005 by Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee, a follow up to his previous collection of essays and reviews, Stranger Shores. I note with interest that, in the new book, Coetzee writes about only two writers 'of color' (ie visibly 'non-white' or 'not European'), fellow Nobelists Gabriel Garcia Marquez and V. S. Naipaul. Caryl Phillips, Salman Rushdie and (Nobel winner)Naguib Mahfouz appear in the previous volume -- and I'm purposefully leaving out the brilliant, Eurocentric, "white" Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges.

Now, this is not an attack on Coetzee, nor am I suggesting that he review the latest Omarr Tyree joint. I simply have a suspicion that my bookshelves would be more diverse than his, even if I removed all the 'African American' tagged items. I find it interesting that he, like so many others, doesn't seem to stray too far afield from the realm of the Usual European Suspects....and only one woman (fellow South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer) in the mix as well.

One wonders if it would cross either his mind, or the mind of book review editors who propose titles and essays to him, to have him survey the work of an African-American author: Since there appears to be a weakness for the Nobel, how about Toni Morrison, or his fellow African Nobelist Wole Soyinka (he did have a review of a black African author in an earlier collection). How much do we really learn in the land of the (color) blind?

10 September 2007


"My alma mater was books, a good library... I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity." -- El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz

If Malcolm Little were behind bars today, would he have access to a range of texts? Could he discover the echoing marketplace of ideas in his prison library that would expand his mind and transform him into the brilliant Malcolm X? According to this article, perhaps not....and The Current Administration thinks that this is a good thing:

Prisons Purging Books on Faith From Libraries

Behind the walls of federal prisons nationwide, chaplains have been quietly carrying out a systematic purge of religious books and materials that were once available to prisoners in chapel libraries.

The chaplains were directed by the Bureau of Prisons to clear the shelves of any books, tapes, CDs and videos that are not on a list of approved resources. In some prisons, the chaplains have recently dismantled libraries that had thousands of texts collected over decades, bought by the prisons, or donated by churches and religious groups.

Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, said the agency was acting in response to a 2004 report by the Office of the Inspector General in the Justice Department. The report recommended steps that prisons should take, in light of the Sept. 11 attacks, to avoid becoming recruiting grounds for militant Islamic and other religious groups. The bureau, an agency of the Justice Department, defended its effort, which it calls the Standardized Chapel Library Project, as a way of barring access to materials that could, in its words, “discriminate, disparage, advocate violence or radicalize.”

The Bureau of Prisons said it relied on experts to produce lists of up to 150 book titles and 150 multimedia resources for each of 20 religions or religious categories — everything from Bahaism to Yoruba.

Behind the walls of federal prisons nationwide, chaplains have been quietly carrying out a systematic purge of religious books and materials that were once available to prisoners in chapel libraries.....
The lists are broad, but reveal eccentricities and omissions....The bureau has not provided additional money to prisons to buy the books on the lists, so in some prisons, after the shelves were cleared of books not on the lists, few remained.

Timothy Larsen, who holds the Carolyn and Fred McManis Chair of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, an evangelical school, looked over lists for “Other Christian” and “General Spirituality”...“There are some well-chosen things in here,” Professor Larsen said...But he continued, “There’s a lot about it that’s weird.” The lists “show a bias toward evangelical popularism and Calvinism,” he said, and lacked materials from early church fathers, liberal theologians and major Protestant denominations.

So: in order to stave off Radical Islam (the purging started with Islamic texts, according to a source I have that works for the Prison Libraries here in Maryland), we toss out The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism and those Pesky Protestants as well along with the Quran?

What's next on the "Offensive" list?

And whose bookshelves are next to be redacted?

How ironic that I pass by this exhibit on display in our Central Hall every day on my way to work. Although it's true: at this moment, nothings been consigned to the flames....yet! Except, perhaps, for whatever pride we might have had in the fact that, as Americans, we have the right to read what we like, write what we like, research any topic, and think for ourselves, even when behind bars.

06 September 2007

Ciao Luciano!

Behind the huggy-bear, "I'm just a happy, regular overweight Italian guy who loves to sing" persona was a great and serious artist
The Washington Post

A fond farewell to the Great Tenor (and hero to 'men of size' everywhere). However, as the NY Times assessment of his career indicates (it’s hard to avoid feeling that he never completely fulfilled his potential, that he squandered some of his awesome talent by letting his enablers turn him from a hard working artist into an overindulged and sometimes clownish superstar), 'The King of the High C's' career does bring up an interesting dichotomy: Does one strive to be An Artist or A Star?

Pavarotti's name is synonymous with opera for many people, and millions watched or listened to him, and purchased his recordings who probably didn't understand a word he sang and had never heard opera before or since. Is that 'bad' in some way, to be a 'popularizer'? In a way similar to the late Beverly "Bubbles" Sills, he managed to introduce people to Art. We hope that some, perhaps small, portion of them continue to be enthralled by it.

Placido Domingo
is doing more within the opera world, particularly thanks to his resuscitation efforts in Washington DC....and okay, someone should have said 'no' to Yes Giorgio, and he probably shouldn't have been as indulged as much as he was...but what a Voice! His 'showstopper' Nessun Dorma made me cry (again) this morning....And I wouldn't give up some of his 'High Culture meets Pop" duets for all the world....

Il Divo meets The Godfather (with a brief cameo appearance by Grace Jones)

Two Tons of Sound: Pavarotti and Barry White

Why Opera Lovers miss him: 'Una furtiva Lagrima' (A furtive tear) fromDonizetti's L'elisir d'amore