Saturday, March 12, 2005

Cultural deficits and other woes ...

It was such a small thing, really, but if so -- why on earth am I still thinking about it after all these hours?

We didn't get to Strybling Arboretum after all due to circumstances beyond our control (garage man didn't have the car serviced in time) so we had to find something else to do with the hours we'd set aside. The trip to San Francisco has to be carefully planned in order to avoid commute traffic hours and the window on that closed around noon.

So it was off to Oakland and an art exhibit I'd wanted to see for weeks. We stopped off first at the African American Library and Museum at 14th and Castro streets downtown in a cluster of historic buildings reclaimed and lovingly restored fairly recently. The old building is an architectural gem and the new use (of the old main library) is appropriate and timely in light of changing demographics in the city. The exhibits, however, are almost non-existent, or, are so scant that there's a general sense of elegant empty space when you climb that beautiful staircase to the second floor and find so little to see and honor. I suppose it's a museum in progress and much will unfold in years to come.

But what troubled me was to come a bit later when we stopped in at the Joyce Gordon Art Gallery a few blocks away, where there was a fine show featuring the work of Keba Konte -- photographer/visual artist. Keba does fascinating work in mixed media that incorporates his fine photographic subjects -- blown up and transferred to reclaimed old wood pieces by some process that I don't quite understand. I've watched his work for years now, and find it always exciting and most original.

It was in another room of the gallery that the incident that's been following me around today surfaced. There were three large paintings of familiar figures from the jazz world tastefully displayed. These were the icons of the genre. My friend asked quite innocently who they were? I was amazed! These were quite good images of Sarah Vaughn, Winton Marsalis, and Dinah Washington. I thought for a moment that the likenesses might not be quite sharp enough to be instantly recognizable -- but it wasn't that at all. A minute or so later I realized that he'd never heard of any of them. Not one. Here was that weird place where African American and European cultures are galaxies apart. He'd have instantly recognized any of the old masters (Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, et al); these were the greats in his world. They were universally accepted as the icons of music -- but in his world. Without a name plate, none would register in quite the same way in black America; except in that part of the community that had studied classical music. I cannot imagine anyone in my world who wouldn't instantly recognize the 3 jazz artists in those portraits. They are world renown, celebrated throughout Asia and on the European Continent a well as in Africa and the Middle East. How could this be?

It's something observed some posts back -- the fact that if a white person expresses ignorance of jazz it matters little, "..only a question of taste." Though were I to stand before paintings of the great European masters showing no sign of recognition (never having ever heard of them) it would surely be interpreted as a cultural deficit on my part and would have sent me to the back row of life to sit among the rest of the unwashed!

Maybe I need to be seeing this as a grand opportunity to do some bridging. Thus far I've been benefitting hughly from visiting both the visual and performing arts venues with someone steeped in the arts. It's been a rich experience and I've been loving every minute of it. Taking the time to follow the critic's columns in the NY Times and the New Yorker is new for me, and has been enriching to a life too long caught up in the immediacy and chaos of the political world.

It may be time now to check out the deficits in his experience. We're surely in sync politically -- both addicted to MoveOn, the Jon Stewart's Daily Show, AlterNet and GoogleNews, and that's gratifying. It means we can start most conversations in the middle of the third paragraph. It helps to not have to feel uncomfortable or defensive about my continuing activism. But there are obviously places in his life experience that have been left virtually untouched as both a second generation American and as a scientist serving in the academy both here and abroad. I'll need to be far more open about those places where our lives have followed divergent paths -- and where there are clear differences that need to be recognized and negotiated. Otherwise, I'm sure to find myself beginning to drift away and back to the place where there are fewer bridges to build or oceans to cross toward understanding.

It's one of the places where age, indeed, does seem to make a difference. We're both probably too close to the end to want to squander precious time and energy trying to bring into alignment impossibly alien lifestyles. I'm finding that I've had far greater access to his world than he's had to mine. So it will be my task to forge the links, I suppose.

How on earth will I ever make him realize that -- if every bit of black influence were to be magically removed from America's music -- there would be nothing left but Lawrence Welk! That may be the most accurate measure of the powerful influence of America's black classical music; Jazz. That those who have created, shaped, and re-created this brilliant art form over all the years can go unrecognized is an indication of how much we've suppressed those influences and of how effectively we've expropriated their work so that the infusion is now hardly traceable to its black roots.

"...Jazz is the only truly American contribution to the world of music." How many times have we heard those words expressed by those who shape opinion and guide the destiny of visionaries who define reality in the world of the arts?

Much to think about ... as always.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Anger has abated and life goes on ...

The anguish flushed out by Michael's death gave way to nesting bird calls, spring blossoms, and blue skies, and a quick return to today's headlines that dwarf's all that's gone before as I share concerns with the rest of my country about our administration's behavior in the world. Funny, I can be passionately African American for short bursts of time, but my pure and unadulterated "American" patriotism does tend to crowd out all but the most egregious offenses against "my people." when the need arises. I'm just as defensive about this nation as any other, maybe even more so because of the great sacrifices and indignities suffered by my ancestors over the centuries. Our investment in this country is huge -- as are my demands that we live up to the promises made so long ago by those slave-holding sexist old dead white men. Despite all, they laid the groundwork for one grand social experiment -- one that needs each of us to protect and defend ferociously. It was never more than a skeletal framework, maybe, and must be re-created by succeeding generations in order to hold and keep operative. I keep reminding myself of that each time the paralyzing anger rises and chokes off my breathing as it did from time to time this past week.

I remind myself that there was Mt. Shasta, after all, and Ashland and NIAD and Dorian's fascinating artwork -- all in the foregound to keep me whole.

Life has a way of thrusting me into the future day after day and there's less and less time to look back. But the lessons are there in a past that holds as much wonder and pleasure as it does pain.

Have been invited by the National Park Service to speak before a national gathering of educators on April 3rd. Will be recalling my World War II experiences in Jim Crow America. I've become the Park Service's reluctant Rosie -- to my surprise, and will be brought out again to utter the unspeakable. It may mean something that the country is finally able to hear those stories alongside the innocuous Rosie tales of ladies holding up the homefront while the men battled overseas (all to the tune of "Little Brown Jug"). It's becoming easier to allow myself to publicly stand up against the conventional stories in favor of re-invigorating the lessons that should have been learned and were not always.

Participated in a phone interview with the West County Times -- they're doing a story on NIAD and Dorian (along with other artists, I believe). A reporter and camera person visited with her the day before at class. It was interesting that the call came as we were visiting the Art of Living Black exhibit at the Richmond Art Center. It was easy to walk around in that environment and relate Dorrie's work in context while talking on my cell phone -- a sign of the times.

Received a call from one who is organizing a major demonstration at San Quentin Prison in relation to the impending execution by lethal injection of Stanley "Tookie" Williams. His last appeal was turned down by the Ninth Court of Appeals and only the Supreme Court now has the power to save him; or action by the governor. We're hoping that enough doubt has been cast to allow this state to re-instate a moratorium on the death penalty. Maybe the increasing number of exonerations and the re-examination of death row cases has changed the climate in the nation and change is now possible. But it will mean returning to the emotional roller coaster of the debate again. It seems such a short time since the last vigil ... .

But today we-re going to visit the Strybling Arboretum in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Been anxious to see the glorious butterfly section and the orchids collection. There are things in life that feed the soul -- the arts, the theater, music of all kinds, and the natural wonders. To let them pass without notice is to shorten one's life, I believe, and reduce one's supply of inner-ness with which we learn to withstand the chaos and continue to grow until time runs out and we become a part of the all again.

It's spring!

Monday, March 07, 2005

Michael Robert Finney, AKA Langston Wright
1950 - 2005

It was the Sixties, a time of great struggle and turmoil that marked us all -- willing or no.

Michael was a child of relative privilege with a beautiful, bright, and charming mother and a father who was one of the first and rare African American members of the city police department. His life should have been predictable, easy. His father stood perhaps 6'4' but Michael was small for a man, standing barely 5'5" and barely more than 120 pounds, as I recall. He was tiny and wiry. His small body would not contain the giant soul and smoldering outrage that eventually erupted into the rage that would consume him.

In his senior year at the University of California at Berkeley his student activism (now deeply involved with a black nationalist movement) would scream out from the front page of the S.F. Chronicle, wildly kicking a helmeted Tactical Squad officer in a violent expression of youthful justifiable racial fury! He was a very young man of principle and ideals that would smother compromise and filter out caution.

We may never know what it was like to have been the son of a member of the SFPD at a time when the legendary Black Panthers were branding them "Pigs!" Black youngsters who were less than "black" had much to prove to their peers and many of the most ferocious nationalists whom I knew had the light skin and smooth hair of "the enemy." This surely fueled matters. It surely did for me as I moved ever more deeply into blackness during those years of unprecedented political change.

In a tragic incident that would separate him forever from those who loved him, Michael and friends found themselves involved in a fatal shootout, an airplane highjacking, and eventually landing in Cuba - where they found asylum and a new life among welcoming strangers. That was 33 years ago, I believe. He was not much more than a boy, the age of my middle son, Bobby.

For Joan, for me, for our very middleclass and largely politically moderate friends, the Revolution had come home. We were devastated! These were our children, and our passivity was creating chasms of differences that either radicalized us or increased the generational differences irrevokably.

I never saw Michael again.

Over the years since, he changed his name to a combination of two of his literary heroes, Langston Wright -- for Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, of course. He mastered the language easily and quickly and eventually evolved into one of Cuba's young intellectuals and worked for Radio Havana as a jazz disc jockey. He won great love and respect and continued to nurture his ideals in a new format, in a new language, and under a new political system. His family never lost the fear that -- on the day that relations were restored with the island, Michael would be seized and returned to the states and inevitable imprisonment. They both visited him as often as possible, and maintained a close relationship over all the years. He'd left a young wife and child here, but eventually created a new family -- with a new daughter on the island. His parents juggled their feelings and allegiances enough to embrace both families, and both were represented yesterday at the memorial service.

I'd been wondering over the past few days just how I'd handle my feelings about Michael. What could I say? I'd not seen him over all the years -- though it was certainly possible to have joined Joan in a visit at some point -- though there were my aging parents to tend and my mentally-retarded daughter -- and there was my deeply-troubled alcoholic son to agonize over... all excuses, I suppose, but quite real impediments.

Yesterday I stood to speak during the testimonies of friends and families:

"Let me place Michael in context," I said. "Visualize with me a piece of parchment upon which the names of a long list of unsung heroes are traced in milk. Invisible. Heroes one and all. Heroes because they were in most cases our best and brightest; "young, gifted, and black!" These were the idealists. The passionate. These were the children of the never-enfranchised; the hosed and beaten, with memories of lynchings and Klan raids. Their time had come -- as had ours. What they did not have were patience and restraint -- but they were young and uncompromising.

Make no mistake, these were the brave young souls who could not be harnessed; who would not bend, and who dared to hold out the spectre of the unspeakable -- the possibility of an armed Black rebellion before a nation stubbornly deaf to our pleas and in the throes of violent change. These were the Bobby Huttons, H. Rap Browns, the Stokely Carmichaels, Fred Hamptons, the Huey Newtons and Bobby Seales, the Malcolm Xs, and yes, the Michael Robert Finneys. It was these brave young souls who -- by their smoldering rage made peaceful change possible. They enabled the work of Dr. Martin Luther King. Without their unbridled youthful fury success may have been even more difficult to achieve. As the ever-present frightening alternative, they stood tall and fearless and threatening as they challenged white power.

One day, probably long after I'm gone, that parchment will be brought out of hiding -- lain carefully upon some grassy plot of ground under a warm sun where those invisible tracings will be burnished brown -- made clearly legible so that the moderates among us -- far removed from the pain and anguish of radical social change -- can finally embrace these heroes who gave their futures, their young lives, to the struggle for full equality that continues unabated to this day.

I find myself, an unrepentant elder without reservation, proudly eulogizing Michael this day, regretful of the years he spent out of the arms of his family -- but grateful to learn from those of you who remained close -- how gracefully -- how uncompromisingly he lived out the remainder of his short life. Amen."

And so he was laid to rest, though much of his work remains uncompleted -- and his successors in the struggle are now largely accounted for in the prison statistics of this nation. I strongly suspect that the pacification of the inner cities has been accomplished over the years through the proliferation of crack cocaine and heroin delivered by the same forces that tried to contain the Michaels of his day. Cynical? Maybe. But one would have to be unbelievably naive and/or blindly insensitive to not see a pattern designed to protect the majority from the rest of us. But I'm exposing more of my own anger than I wish to at this point, and should leave something for another time.

Meanwhile, today's young "heroes" in the uniforms of the nation, are away on foreign shores engaged in the legal killing of brown strangers and being made to justify this as an expression of patriotism or protection of our still seriously flawed democratic process, -- with many puzzled and frightened and increasingly cynical as they as often as not must fight for personal survival against young innocent people like themselves -- those who are fighting to free their country from occupation by outside forces; us. Their fast-fading ideals were borrowed temporarily from corrupt systems and leaders far far away in a Washington situation room -- from old men without the heart for the battlefield. And one of these new soldiers bears the name of my 18 year-old Jessica, the grand daughter who was lured into the military from her high school campus by persistent and aggressive recruiters -- and who cries today in boot camp in South Carolina where she is undergoing preparation for war against ...? It's hard to not see Jessica as more of a victim than was Michael, in many ways. At least that's the way it appears from here on this, the day of his eulogy. There's little fire in her belly. There is only that vague promise that four years from now she can come home again. She will kill her way into college, though the Armed Forces brochure expresses it quite differently, of course.

If you'll scroll back to song lyrics I wrote long ago, you may find Michael buried in "Little Boy Black," or someone very like him. It was a composite of Michael and a youngster I met in Chicago at that time, a member of the Blackstone Rangers.

Maybe I'll re-enter them here, but tomorrow ...

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Gloria en Excelsis Shasta!

Home again in an exalted state of being. I've seen Mt. Shasta! Is there anything anywhere on the planet to compare? I do not believe for one minute that I could have lived in the shadow of that wondrous mountain and remained a lifelong atheist. To see it and have it follow you for several miles as you travel along Highway 5 is to give up all claim to any rational intellectual capacity. For the sake of my sanity and to not be pushed off the edge of the earth by the crazies of the world, I'd long ago given up all notions of religious belief or practices. I'd satisfied my spiritual needs in unorthodox ways and insisted upon the right to define meaning for myself. In the shadow of that mountain one can easily believe in fairies, Sasquatch, magic potions that bring love or damnation to one's enemies; all within the realm of real possibility. To say that I was awed was to understate the obvious. How else does one explain the fact that this 14,183 ft. natural monument stands completely snow-covered from top to bottom when no other site within range has any more than a dusting at the crest? We were almost blinded by the brilliance of the pure alabaster whiteness under an almost cloudless blue sky. It seemed almost translucent. For miles and miles it appeared to us from left then right then straight ahead as the road bent and ribboned as if made of serpentine -- as if built to purposely provide the illusion of being surrounded by this wonder. I will read now the myths and Indian tales that must abound in the literature of the sacred mountains. How have I missed all that?

On the drive north earlier in the week we ran into a soft rain all the way from Redding, California, into Oregon. That meant that we experienced a low cloud covering that completely obscured Shasta. It wasn't until we drove south yesterday in the warmth of early spring that suddenly there it was in all its glory! It was probably just as well. I'm not sure that anything offered by mere mortals would have been more than an anti-climax.

But I'd say that mere mortals did pretty well. Ashland lived up to expectations. It fueled my determination to find some way to work with others to enrich my city through the performing arts -- and by any means necessary.

And, yes, we did get to Ashland and Richard III, Shaw's Philanderer, the world premier piece -- By the Waters of Babylon, and the hilarious early thirties romp called Room Service, plus a two-hour backstage guided tour of the wonderful world of the theater as created by the Ashland Shakespeare Festival Theaters. We were accompanied on the tour by two of the actors we'd seen in Room Service -- and would see later that evening in Richard III. There was a minor disappointment in that Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is scheduled to open on March 30th so we missed the August Wilson play. Knowing that this magical world is a mere 5-6 hours drive north (and past Mt. Shasta!) helps to remind me that one day I'll go back at a different time of year and that the trip will be timed to catch Wilson's work.

Not sure who was holding the world together until I got back, but I can't say that it mattered a great deal at the time.

Today I will attend the memorial service for Michael Finney, the son of my dear friend, Joan, and my godson. He died in Cuba where he lived his entire adult life. There is the tragedy and the genius that was Michael -- who could never come home again... . A story for another time.

I need now to get out of my paper hat and back into my mourning clothes ... .