Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Excerpt, from internet log "The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker"

I've been planning a new internet log, intended to focus on visual art; and here is something written for it...

Leonardo: The Court Genius, Born Outside Law

The Life of Leonardo da Vinci, Part 1 and 2
(A 2-disk, five part documentary-drama by Renato Castellani)
RAI, 2003



Leonardo of Vinci was born to a lusty, successful father who claimed him and a peasant girl mother who was kept from him; and the claim of Leonardo's father was not embraced by the man’s other children, Leonardo’s ten brothers and two sisters, and those siblings used Leonardo’s illegitimate state to keep Leonardo from the estate first his father then his uncle willed to him. The solitary Leonardo had a desire to learn and a talent for drawing; and he seemed to need to build a genuine knowledge base in order to proceed with his work, whether it involved art or engineering. He studied nature, particularly the human anatomy, even dissecting corpses. Religious paintings—such as his “Last Supper”—brought and sustained his fame. The Italian Renaissance master had popes and princes for his patrons, and a place at court, something that must have given him some assurance and pride. Yet, he seems to have grown up without the security in home that many people take for granted, and the political fortunes of his patrons—sometimes high, sometimes low—affected his own state; and those shifts in position could have renewed a sense of vulnerability. That may have affected him: it may be part of why he did not finish many of his projects. He had the curiosity and passion, but did he have the discipline and focus? If you do not receive lasting commitment from others, you do not have a model for it, or even a reason for it—it does not seem real. That insecurity can have an impact even upon things you imagine will be transcendent—at least that is what I am inclined to think, in general, and in particular, having watched the multi-part motion picture by Renato Castellani on the life and work of Leonardo, who painted the “Mona Lisa” and imagined air flight, underwater boats, and armored tanks centuries before others did.

Why did I decide to see a film on Leonardo? I realized that, other than an ad for a distant museum show, I had not seen or heard his name recently and had not thought about him in years—and was beginning to forget him. I am ambivalent about biographies and memoirs, thinking their concerns more likely to be gossip and self-indulgence, rather than significant fact, or true insight; and that the distorted perspective found in many biographies and memoirs can have a detrimental effect regarding the understanding of artists, writers, and thinkers, with the emphasis shifting from philosophy and practice to psychology. When Leonardo’s “Last Supper” is considered, Renato Castellani’s film narrator points to the centrality of Christ in the picture, and the high place of an early loyal disciple and the lowest place given to Judas; and these are appropriate and relevant (aesthetic and ethical) notes. Leonardo’s biography is not a theme in the painted picture. Often the concern of people with an artist’s biography has to do with their inability to deal with the artist’s greatness—they want to bring the artist down to their level, and prefer to look at the failures in his private life. However, it cannot be declared too frequently that an artist’s greatness is often rooted in his pursuit of his own values and visions, and ability to win support for those; and his failures in life often exist because the people in his life refuse cooperation (compromise of artistic principles can endanger work, but compromise of personal principles can be the thing that allows a relationship to survive). Not much is known of Leonardo’s erotic life, so his childhood familial life is looked to for obvious personal conflict and drama. It seems to me that Leonardo was lucky to have a father who recognized his creative talent and found an artist with whom the precocious boy could apprentice: that is a rare life-making response, rather than life-destroying one. Yet, a biographical and historical documentary, such as this, presents a strong sense of the world in which the artist moved. Some of the scenes are historical, informational, and others are acted drama. The locations, costumes, casting, and acting do bring the viewer close to the time in which the man and painter lived. (I liked the landscapes and buildings, and found myself wondering about the temperature in the rooms, and how men could go about in such heavy jackets, and about the practical implications of their tights.) It is impossible not to conclude that whatever continuity existed in Leonardo’s life began in his own imaginative mind and questing spirit.

Documentaries get less attention than fiction feature films, but remain important for intellectual and political purposes. They offer a concentration of analysis and experience, a fundamental seriousness, that does not have always a large place in the culture; in reading literature, the thought of the writer meets the thought of the reader, and in seeing documentaries the thought of the filmmaker and his subject/s meet the thought of the viewer. It is rewarding, but also demanding. We are far from the time when the major television networks presented documentaries as a regular part of their mission; and the films and videos that get theatrical release and critical attention tend to be on controversial subjects. Home viewing on personal equipment augments that. I still recall one of my favorite documentaries, many years after seeing it in a downtown Manhattan theater: the original civil rights series Eyes on the Prize; and appreciate the other documentaries I have screened recently, including America’s Castles, Art of War, Barack Obama, Daughters of Afghanistan, King Arthur (His Life and Legends), Men Get Depressed, Muse of Fire, Opera Stories, Shakespeare’s Soliloquies, and Why Shakespeare? I thought Charles Ferguson’s recent documentary, Inside Job, on the origin of the banking crisis was great—beautiful, smart, and useful. In watching actor Philippe Leroy as Leonardo in the documentary-drama, and seeing the artist’s exploration of art, science, and even philosophy, something of Leonardo’s life and work were restored to me, an accomplishment that provides a foundation for further exploration.

The painter Leonardo’s competition with the younger and angrier Michelangelo, a great sculptor, was interesting, as well—for the differences in their personalities and work; and it reminded me of other, later competitions, possibly inevitable competitions, among artists (writers and singers too) of different generations, philosophies, and styles. Everyone wants the space in which to do his or her own work, the space, the respect, and the reward; and an emerging artist often sees older masters as gatekeepers and threats—and sometimes bores. I did find myself wondering what Leonardo’s work would have been like if the questions he asked—the knowledge he sought—had been provided already, had been inherited. Would he have been more productive, or less?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"September Song"

“Oh, it's a long, long while from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn't got time for the waiting game”
--“September Song,” a Sinatra standard


…I was listening to a jazz talk on the radio and the host was saying that she had interviewed an opera singer who took issue with Sinatra’s emphasis on consonants instead of vowels when he sang, one of the few technical criticisms the host had heard of Sinatra. I wondered if that emphasis was Sinatra’s rejection of easy beauty—of an enveloping femininity—and his affirmation of a fundamental masculinity. Who knows? Sinatra was able to be eloquent and direct, sensual, combining the different aspects of human nature, of mind and instinct…


…Fame is a tool, and when partnered with intelligence and talent it can yield cultural authority—but when you have no cultural authority the frustration can lead to the use of curses and insults for their crude force (believing any force is better than no force)…


“The days grow short when you reach September” Sinatra sang: and Septembers have been significant for me—of course, they have been significant for everyone. School classes often begin in September. Cultural events often begin to deepen and multiply in September. I first left Louisiana and arrived in New York in September; and last September left New York and arrived in Louisiana…


The best thing I have done in the last year is to review my appreciation for literature, reading the language and vision of people who have seen or imposed an order on the world (or on how they think about the world), people who have found or made meaning.


So much else remains undone, or if done then unrewarded…


…I have been reading a book on theatre, which includes an argument for experimental plays: but, I do not think difficult, obscure work can be the central work of any culture, unless the desire is to create a mystery cult—requiring special introductions, guides, interpretations. A religion of obfuscation and revelation—something that must be taken on faith rather than established with proofs. Rituals appropriate for nighttime and old caves, not daylight and open fields…I would like to think that it is possible to be profound and understood—and that is what I have believed about the best literature…

Encore: A Story for Children: "Postcards from Exile"

“Postcards from Exile,” A Story for Children

Original City and Country Post: Friday, September 5, 2008


Note: I wanted to write a story for children that would be about and also offer intelligent pleasures, pleasures rooted in learning and knowledge. I wanted to write a story that would recognize some of the real world complexity that children live with, such as family members who do not always get along and sometimes live apart. I imagined that each item below would be treated as an individual page, with some pages illustrated with colorful drawings, while other pages showed only text. (I wrote this copyrighted story, Postcards from Exile, in year 2001, and sent it to a wide range of illustrators, editors and publishers, but no one pursued the project; and, later, there was an animated children's television program with a similar scenario--and I wondered if that was a coincidence or if someone I shared my story with had given it to others...)


Postcards from Exile

1. I sometimes get postcards, notes, and letters from my uncle, my father’s brother, who lives in New York and travels on planes, boats, and trains…

2. He sent me a postcard from France of the Eiffel Tower.

3. He sent me a postcard from India of the Taj Mahal.

4. I live in Louisiana, a state in the southern part of the United States. I live in a house with my father, my mother, and my older brother.

5. My uncle wrote me a note that says, “Home is where you feel free to breathe deep and laugh loud. Home is where you feel free to wear old clothes or walk without shoes. Home is where you feel free to be alone or invite friends. Home is where you feel free to do or not do—almost anything.”

6. He wrote, “Even though you feel free at home, if you make a mess at home, or in another place, you still have to clean it up, or else you will have nothing but messes and won’t be able to move or do anything.” That’s what my father and mother say too. I try to clean up whatever mess I make.

7. In our house, we have a playroom, but I play in other parts of the house too. We all have to try to take care of the house. This is where we live, where we eat and bathe and sleep, where we talk and play and sometimes work.

8. In Louisiana, people grow cane to make sugar and syrup, and grow pepper to make hot sauce, and there are also salt mines and oil fields. We say we’re the sweetest and spiciest state in the union, in the United States.

9. The places my uncle visits are different from where I live. His postcards show unusual things, a painting of people in old timey clothes, a man on a camel, a woman weaving a basket, a large waterfall, weird buildings and other things I do not see where I live.

10. One of his postcards is of a jaguar sitting on a bunch of leaves in South America. It looks like a tiger to me.

11. He sent me a postcard of pretty water high on a rocky hill. The postcard said it was one of five Amir Lakes in north Afghanistan. A-f-g-h-a-n-i-s-t-a-n. I can write Afghanistan but it’s hard for me to say it. My mother can say it.

12. My uncle wrote in a letter, “A postcard is a picture of a place or thing that anyone might visit. If there’s a person on the postcard of a strange place, someone you don’t know, he just seems part of the place, a place you might visit one day.” I know that. Well, I know that now. He also wrote, “A personal photograph is a picture of a place where I have been, and it shows me in it, where I was, how I looked, and what I was doing. When you know the person in a photograph, you notice him first, and then you notice where he was when the photograph was taken. A postcard is about the present and future, about what is and what might be. A personal photograph is about yesterday, about what used to be.” This is the way he writes and talks. He’s always trying to teach me something. I like learning but not all the time.

13. My father has a wife and children but my uncle does not. My uncle has friends and a special lady friend.

14. My uncle and his friends get together for laughs and games and talks, just like my friends and me. They go to different places together to eat and see shows and hear music, and sometimes his friends go to his home and other times he goes to theirs.

15. My uncle went to Switzerland with his friend Bob. He sent me a photograph of the two of them dressed in big, thick shiny clothes with hats and big glasses called goggles on their faces, standing on skis on a lot of clean white snow. (It hardly ever snows in Louisiana.)

16. In a letter from a while ago, my uncle wrote, “Bob and I met in college. He was nice and smart and funny and I chose him as my friend. We studied together, talked about books together, went bicycling and hiking and to movies together, and we talked about girls together. We loaned each other money, and jackets and ties, for important dates. We were friends, and we were often together. Even though we work in different places now, we still get together.” College is school for big kids, for big people.

17. My uncle says that letters are for when you have a lot to say. His letters are sometimes long but they are interesting to me.

18. My uncle went to Italy with his special lady friend, Sandra, and sent me a photograph of them in a small boat, a gondola, in the city of Venice. G-o-n-d-o-l-a.

19. He wrote in a letter, “Sandra and I met at work and talked about what we did there and also what we did during our weekends. I liked her and chose her as a friend. We had dinners together. She finds joy almost everywhere she looks. I chose her as a special friend. We cook for each other, give each other gifts of books and clothing, and we walk and talk in the park together, see plays together, shop together for paintings by young artists, play basketball together, and together go to hear people play music. We learned to speak Italian together. I like the careful way she treats people, and I like the way she looks. We might choose to be together always.”

20. He told me that he had a lot of good times traveling while alone and with his friends. He said he had good times at his home in New York too, but he thought maybe childhood, being my age, might be the best time of all. I don’t know if that’s true. He gets to do whatever he wants, or almost everything.

21. I do some of the things I want and things my mother and father tell me, like my homework and cleaning my room and saying “Thank you” and “Please,” even when I don’t want to say that.

22. My uncle went to Africa. He sent me a postcard of people dressed in clothes with these tiny squares of colors on them, yellow, green, orange, and other colors. The people were dancing. That looked like fun, but I remember my uncle wrote that childhood is “maybe like a Saturday afternoon. Good things happen but you don’t always think about how good they are until it’s no longer Saturday. Maybe childhood is like an ice cream cone. You have to enjoy it while it lasts. Maybe childhood is like a furry bear or a broken toy or a cheery song. Maybe I don’t recall very well what childhood is like and you have to tell me.”

23. I write to my uncle sometimes but my letters are not like his. I tell him what I did at school and that I played jump rope or dolls or checkers or dress-up with my friends but there’s not much I have to teach him. Except about childhood. I guess I teach him about that.

24. My father has a wife and a son and a daughter. My uncle, his brother, does not have a wife or children. He has friends. My father lives in Louisiana, in the country. My uncle lives in New York, in the city. My father does not like to travel. My uncle does. They are different and they do not always agree. My father likes to eat meat and my uncle likes fruits and vegetables. My father doesn’t like to read a lot and my uncle always carries a book when he visits. They sometimes argue about who should lead the United States, sounding like boys arguing about who should be baseball team captain. My father and his brother are different, but my uncle and his friends are more like each other.

25. My uncle says that a mother and father choose to have children but the children don’t choose each other. Brothers and sisters don’t choose to be brothers and sisters but friends choose to be friends. I did not choose my brother, but I like him most of the time. The best time my father and his brother have is when they listen to old timey music, music from when they were as small as I am. They try to dance. They laugh and hug then. My uncle does not visit often.

26. My mother says my uncle lives in exile. I asked if that was a place in New York but my mother said no. My mother said exile is a feeling. Exile is when you are in a new place because the old place where you used to be is not a good place for you to be any more. It is like having happiness and underneath the happiness is sadness—you are smiling but there’s a frown near the corner of your mouth. The frown comes out when you go back to the place where you don’t want to be. My mother says there aren’t as many things for my uncle to see and do where we live as there are where he lives. I know that.

27. I have not been to New York, where my uncle lives. In New York, there is the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, big baseball stadiums, and places where there are lots of drawings and statues, and an ice skating rink. There are horses with carriages in a park, and a lot of tall buildings and a lot of people. People from all over the world live in New York.

28. When my uncle calls, he speaks to my mother longer than he speaks to my father. My father and my uncle talk about the weather and work and the next time my uncle will visit. When my mother talks to my uncle, her voice goes low and they talk about his friends and where he is and she asks him if he’s taking care of himself.

29. One of my uncle’s postcards was of a pyramid in Egypt. It looks like a big triangle made of bricks. My mother says Egypt is one place she’d like to go.

30. Another postcard was of a big rock in a park in this country, in California. The rock is called Halfdome and the park Yosemite. Y-o-s-e-m-i-t-e.

31. I would like to travel sometime, but my father says we will wait until I’m older.

32. I would like to travel with my father, my mother, and my brother. Maybe we could go to one of the places where my uncle travels to when he’s there. Maybe India, maybe Italy.

33. I have a postcard from him of the leaning tower of Pisa in Italy.

34. My uncle’s postcards are special to me, because he shows me places I have not been, places where I might go when I get bigger.

35. One of my favorites is of a waterfall near trees. The sun is shining and there’s a rainbow in the sky. It’s a picture of Victoria Falls in Africa.

36. A yellow and blue fish, called a queen angelfish, which lives in the waters off a Caribbean island, is very pretty on a card he sent. C-a-r-i-b-b-e-a-n. My father said that when we travel we might go to an island. Maybe we’ll travel after I learn to say all these names with no trouble.

37. I like giraffes too. There are a lot of giraffes in Africa. I have a postcard with giraffes on it.

38. I don’t think that I would like seeing a lion, but I have a postcard of one lying down some place in Africa.

39. I have a photograph of my uncle with some of his friends in an eating place in Spain. He said that there weren’t a lot of other people in the picture because a lot of people sleep in the afternoon there. He said that sometimes he slept in the afternoon too. I wouldn’t travel just to sleep somewhere else.

40. Sometimes, I think of my uncle before going to sleep in my bed, and I dream of some of those places he has told me about. I dream.

(DG, November 2001)

President Obama's Speech to Students

Prepared Remarks of President Barack Obama Back to School Event

Arlington, Virginia September 8, 2009


The President: Hello everyone – how’s everybody doing today? I’m here with students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. And we’ve got students tuning in from all across America, kindergarten through twelfth grade. I’m glad you all could join us today.


I know that for many of you, today is the first day of school. And for those of you in kindergarten, or starting middle or high school, it’s your first day in a new school, so it’s understandable if you’re a little nervous. I imagine there are some seniors out there who are feeling pretty good right now, with just one more year to go. And no matter what grade you’re in, some of you are probably wishing it were still summer, and you could’ve stayed in bed just a little longer this morning.


I know that feeling. When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn’t have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday – at 4:30 in the morning.
Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, "This is no picnic for me either, buster."


So I know some of you are still adjusting to being back at school. But I’m here today because I have something important to discuss with you. I’m here because I want to talk with you about your education and what’s expected of all of you in this new school year.


Now I’ve given a lot of speeches about education. And I’ve talked a lot about responsibility.
I’ve talked about your teachers’ responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn.
I’ve talked about your parents’ responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don’t spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox.


I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.


But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.


And that’s what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.


Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.


Maybe you could be a good writer – maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper – but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor – maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine – but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.


And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.


And this isn’t just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.
You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.


We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.


Now I know it’s not always easy to do well in school. I know a lot of you have challenges in your lives right now that can make it hard to focus on your schoolwork.


I get it. I know what that’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in.


So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.


But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn’t have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.


Some of you might not have those advantages. Maybe you don’t have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. Maybe someone in your family has lost their job, and there’s not enough money to go around. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don’t feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren’t right.


But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying.


Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up. No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.
That’s what young people like you are doing every day, all across America.


Young people like Jazmin Perez, from Roma, Texas. Jazmin didn’t speak English when she first started school. Hardly anyone in her hometown went to college, and neither of her parents had gone either. But she worked hard, earned good grades, got a scholarship to Brown University, and is now in graduate school, studying public health, on her way to being Dr. Jazmin Perez.


I’m thinking about Andoni Schultz, from Los Altos, California, who’s fought brain cancer since he was three. He’s endured all sorts of treatments and surgeries, one of which affected his memory, so it took him much longer – hundreds of extra hours – to do his schoolwork. But he never fell behind, and he’s headed to college this fall.


And then there’s Shantell Steve, from my hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Even when bouncing from foster home to foster home in the toughest neighborhoods, she managed to get a job at a local health center; start a program to keep young people out of gangs; and she’s on track to graduate high school with honors and go on to college.


Jazmin, Andoni and Shantell aren’t any different from any of you. They faced challenges in their lives just like you do. But they refused to give up. They chose to take responsibility for their education and set goals for themselves. And I expect all of you to do the same.


That’s why today, I’m calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education – and to do everything you can to meet them. Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class, or spending time each day reading a book. Maybe you’ll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community. Maybe you’ll decide to stand up for kids who are being teased or bullied because of who they are or how they look, because you believe, like I do, that all kids deserve a safe environment to study and learn. Maybe you’ll decide to take better care of yourself so you can be more ready to learn. And along those lines, I hope you’ll all wash your hands a lot, and stay home from school when you don’t feel well, so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter.


Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it.


I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work -- that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.
But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.


That’s OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, "I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."


These people succeeded because they understand that you can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time. If you get in trouble, that doesn’t mean you’re a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying.


No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. It’s the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.


Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new. So find an adult you trust – a parent, grandparent or teacher; a coach or counselor – and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.


And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don’t ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.


The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.


It’s the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and found this nation. Students who sat where you sit 75 years ago who overcame a Depression and won a world war; who fought for civil rights and put a man on the moon. Students who sat where you sit 20 years ago who founded Google, Twitter and Facebook and changed the way we communicate with each other.


So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?


Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you’ve got to do your part too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down – don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.


Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Encore: Experts and the Importance of the Arts

I have fallen out of the world at different times, for different reasons: away from conversation, away from friendships, away from shared obligations—falling at tremendous speed, sometimes with amusement, with pride, with relief, sometimes in fear, in pain, in rage; and it is art—dance, drama, film, literature, music, paintings, poetry, and sculpture; the beauty, intelligence, order, passion, and truth of art—more often than not that has pulled me back into the world. The arts do not come to me, or to us, out of magic: they are the works of cultivated men and women: women and men who have been cultivated by the discipline of artistic practice, if not by significant education and acquisition of other formal manners and habits. The arts are repositories of humanity, of humane thought and feeling.

Culture is what has interested me—what I wanted to talk about, write about, create: and the diverse arts and their appreciation are at the core of culture. I have asked several cultural workers in the last year to discuss the subject…


Friday, April 3, 2009

Elizabeth Alexander, Poet

Elizabeth Alexander published her first book of poetry, The Venus Hottentot, in 1990, followed by the poetry collections Body of Life (1996), Antebellum Dream Book (2001), American Sublime (2005), and, with co-author Marilyn Nelson, Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color (2008), a book for young adults. In her poetry Elizabeth Alexander captures the ideas, the moments, the perceptions, and the sensations, that are missed, usually, in the first and second drafts of history, the real stories of human lives. I found her American Sublime a particularly beautiful book and was surprised that her essays in The Black Interior were as interesting, as impressive. Alexander, who teaches in Yale’s African American Studies department, has a second, more recent, book of essays, Power and Possibility. She is a writer to watch, and to listen to, as much of America learned when she participated in the inauguration of President Barack Obama; but, more significantly, she will be, for a very long time, a poet whose work is to be read. There have been appreciative and critical comments made about the poem she wrote for that historic day in January, and I was curious to know what Elizabeth Alexander herself had learned from the experience (I sent her an e-mail query at the end of March and she quickly responded).

Daniel: What did you learn about public poetry as a result of your inauguration experience?

Elizabeth Alexander: "From the literally thousands of letter and emails I have received form strangers, I learned that so many people are open and receptive to public poetry. They meet it as it comes to them and respond with their own words, feelings, stories. That has been very powerful and affirming of the ability of art to have a place in the everyday lives of Americans."



Saturday, March 28, 2009

Acadiana Film Festival

The Acadiana Film Festival taking place at different locations (Cite Des Arts, and Grand 14 Theater, Lite, and the Natural History Museum, among them) in Lafayette, Louisiana, scheduled for April 16th through 19th, is focused on the craft, content, and pleasure of films, present and future, with programs attractive to film professionals and the general audience. There are workshops for film and sound editors, for actors on developing characters, and discussions on music composition and marketing an idea for a film (pitching stories), and the festival provides a location tour, as well as music receptions, and, most importantly, film premieres and screenings, with the subjects of films including hurricane Katrina and Mardi Gras, writer Kate Chopin and singer Patti Smith, coastal land loss restoration and plate lunch restaurants.

A few days ago, I asked one of the organizers, Jana Godshall, about the Acadiana Film Festival, and the expected audience:

Who are the likely attendants of the film festival (artists, educators, students, others)?

Two days ago (Thursday), the festival director Jana Godshall answered, "All of the above. We have artists, educators, students, producers, musicians, composers, directors, actors, writers, city and state entertainment industry representatives and not only that,...simply film enthusiasts. Anyone who enjoys independent cinema, as we have tons of free screenings open to the public Thursday through Sunday, April 16-19th," and she added, "our line up is great this year. we have so many feature film, shorts, documentaries, panels, workshops, parties, networking opportunities."

Godshall works with festival coordinator Julie Bordelon, and can be reached at: Acadiana Film Festival, 101 W. Vermilion St., Lafayette, La 70501; and, more information about the festival is available online (search: Acadiana Film Festival).



Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Monica Hairston of the Center for Black Music Research

Below is a query submitted to Monica Hairston of the Center for Black Music Research, from me. I am interested in a range of disciplines and fields, but few things give me the pleasure of music, all kinds of music, including jazz, independent rock, and music from other countries; and, of course, I am open to learning more about the things that interest me. I am aware, as well, that too frequently African-American music, as with much else, is thought of in terms of stereotypes. I wondered recently if a scholar could suggest new avenues of learning, for myself, for others; and, consequently, I asked the Center for Black Music Research's Monica Hairston, What have been some areas of black music that require more research and thought? The center is devoted to researching, preserving, and sharing black music, from wherever it emerges; and I thought the center's executive director Monica Hairston, who received a master's degree in music from the University of Georgia and is a doctoral candidate at New York University, and whose own interests include jazz and popular music (and feminism, ethnomusicology, etc.) would have an illuminating perspective. In February I sent her my query and I was grateful to receive the busy scholar's answer yesterday!

Daniel: What have been some areas of black music that require more research and thought?

Monica Hairston of the Center for Black Music Research: "A couple of areas that come to mind immediately include the following:

Historically: Any topics eighteenth century and earlier. Black musical history doesn’t begin with African American spirituals. From Vincente Lusitano to the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, black musicians and composers populate all historical eras and all corners of the globe.

Culturally: Issues of gender and sexuality. Men and women can have differently-gendered experiences of the same phenomena. These experiences often manifest in or are refracted through music and music-making."



Thursday, February 12, 2009

Scholar Aram Goudsouzian on Sidney Poitier

Professor Aram Goudsouzian teaches in the department of history at the University of Memphis, and he wrote a comprehensive book, Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon (University of North Carolina Press, 2004), which manages to be both inspiring and sad at the same time. He was recently kind enough, earlier today, to answer a question about Sidney Poitier and the actor's relationship to his own scholarship.

Daniel: What led you to write about Sidney Poitier and how do the issues raised by his life and work relate to yours?

Aram Goudsouzian: I am interested in how popular culture shapes our attitudes about race, and in how race shapes our perceptions of popular culture. African Americans have historically found voices in entertainment and sports that were suppressed in more formal political arenas, and Hollywood has such profound, if often unacknowledged, effects upon the broader culture. The arc of Sidney Poitier’s saga particularly appealed to me because it carries through this entire period of racial upheaval. His persona transcended black stereotypes as comic buffoons or faithful sidekicks, and his dignity resonated with an emerging generation of African Americans and liberal whites who challenged racial convention in the 1950s. By the early 1960s, he seemed to embody the principle of racial equality, winning worldwide fame while lending Hollywood its sole black icon. Yet Poitier’s onscreen characters had to be ultra-virtuous heroes who exhibited unique restraints, fettering suggestions of black anger or sexuality. So by the late 1960s, one decade after getting considered a cutting-edge progressive figure, Black Power radicals and college students had tabbed him an “Uncle Tom.” I think his life and work still shape our popular understanding of black public figures today, none more so than President Obama. He seems to fulfill the same white liberal fantasies as Poitier, only on the most visible stage in the world.



Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ideal Film Culture in Louisiana?

Several weeks ago I asked several questions of diverse persons involved with Louisiana culture; and here are two answers to a single question regarding Louisiana film culture...

Daniel queries Alexandyr Kent, film reviewer:
What would a more ideal film culture look like, or be, in Louisiana?

Alexandyr Kent: That’s tough to answer for me. I’d begin by looking at the habits of movie-going itself.

We have enough movie theaters, generally speaking, and it’s nice to see the fall and winter lineups featuring popular arthouse/foreign films. It’s nice to see commercial appreciation for high-quality films.

Primarily, though, I think most moviegoers see movies as escapism or light entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with that. What worries me, however, is that some viewers may not be concerned with a movie’s potential seriousness of purpose (or its misrepresentations of society, culture, history, desire, etc.). I’d like to hear more conversations – by both viewers, reporters and critics – about subject matter and film form, and less about celebrity PR. It’s wishful thinking, but healthy doses of intellect and skepticism never hurt anyone.

If you attend theaters like the Prytania in N.O., like the Angelika chain in Dallas or New York, like the Robinson Film Center in Shreveport, they encourage a deeper engagement in the medium. They encourage, but do not force, deeper inquiry.

I wish multiplex chains would do this in a more overt way, and I think it would start by simply offering consumers appropriate spaces – like restaurants, cafes, coffeeshops, bars or ice cream counters – to digest what they see. Audiences often seem to be in a rush to leave the theater.

By their very design, many multiplex movie theaters don’t encourage consumers to pause and reflect, and that’s a shame to me. Look, on the other hand, at how bookstore chains like Border’s and B&N have encouraged customers to linger by adding cafes, comfy chairs and programming kids’ events and book signings. Bookstores and movie theaters are not mirror-image businesses – you don’t have to buy a ticket to get into a bookshop -- but they have a lot to offer one another when it comes to designing an experience.


Daniel queries Susie Labry, an actress, singer, and film community activist:
What would a more ideal film culture look like, or be, in Louisiana?

Susie Labry: I would like to see more professionalism in the film industry. I want to see our culture preserved and maintained and respect for one another’s cultures as we are a diverse culture and that is what makes it interesting. I want to see history and culture maintained and preserved. Want to see more Louisiana talent used. I want to Louisiana music and more sets used here. I want to see the workers work together as family and yet have healthy competition and quality. There needs to be a balance where both Employers and Employees and Contracts all benefit all. I want to see us as Louisiana unique, not mainstream and looking like everyone else. Just as colorful and exciting as its original music and food industry. Preserve our way, music, food, architecture, history, etc.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Stray Thoughts: Serious and Light


Senator Ted Kennedy has died, and is being saluted as an effective liberal politician, someone who achieved a lot of good legislation and embodied significant public values, as a man who had personal flaws but faced and grew beyond them.


There has been another recent report about the murder of an investigative Russian journalist: some people still believe you can kill the truth, or kill knowledge, by killing a person.


The spirit-killers are evil but think they are good. The spirit-killers are ignorant and worse but think they are wise. The spirit-killers act out of hatred, selfishness, stupidity, but imagine themselves heroic, pious, sacrificing. The spirit killers want us to give up art for mundane duties, to give up brave fellowship for prejudice, to give up individuality for witless conformity. The spirit-killers speak words of poison and call that concern, duty, pride. The spirit-killers may be male or female, of any skin color, religion, or class. The spirit-killers may seem young but they are old, as putrid as death. The spirit-killers- destroy but cannot create. The spirit-killers’ true energies are envy and resentment—and time reveals their evil.


With the recent economic turmoil in the United States, there has been severe criticism of capitalists and capitalism to an extent that would have been suspect years ago, in better times (methods and morals have been questioned). It makes you wonder, Why wasn’t honest criticism of the financial system tolerated before its recent crisis? Why didn’t the financial press do its job? (I did some work for a financial news service years ago—and met incompetent and immature people there, so probably should not bother with that last question.) Why is it that when people steal out of want, out of sheer greed, they are not despised, but when people steal out of need, out of a desperate attempt to survive, they are despised?


A lot of people are chauvinists of one kind or another, but I have been struck again by the chauvinism of certain black male intellectuals: they define themselves in ways that suggest racial, gender, and sexual prejudices, ways so deeply rooted that those ways seem to be beyond the criticism if not awareness of those intellectuals. Some have commented on the president as if he were an ordinary street fighter (not understanding why he doesn’t talk tough and use power, instead of collaboration and diplomacy, to get his means). They judge other artists and intellectuals similarly: not understanding the complex goal, the subtle strategy.


I have been enjoying pianist and singer Judy Carmichael’s NPR radio program “Jazz Inspired,” in which she talks to creative people about their work: she asks terrific questions, full of importance and insight. (Sometimes I have liked Herman Fuselier’s radio program on zydeco music on KRVS as well.)


Streisand has a new album (scheduled for September 2009 release: Love is the Answer); and she is being featured in Parade magazine, the article available online.


I have received and have begun to “look at” Marc Robinson’s study of American theatre, The American Play (Yale, 2009). In recent days, I have read two novels, Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence and Roberto Bolano’s The Skating Rink. (I am thinking of developing a web log devoted principally to the reading of, and commenting on, literature: the Garrett Reader.)


Bliss, a Turkish film I saw last year at a special screening in Manhattan and raved about, has been playing in the city again as part of a regular screening and getting good reviews!

Failures of Love

My mother (a unique combination of intelligence and ignorance, love and hatred) had two daughters: one is dead and one lives; and the first I grew up with and the second, much younger than me, I did not. I was living in New York when my sister died and things were such in my life that I did not travel south for the funeral, but as part of my commemoration of that death I did write poetry and fiction. (If you want to know what is important to a writer, look at what he writes and how.) I have not ever felt entirely comfortable or safe in Louisiana: not in the past, not now—and I felt many things upon my return last year and being in social situations was not one of my goals, for various reasons. Thinking, writing, cultivating some sense of a career in a difficult time have been primary. (One writes to stay sane, not only for money in the present or future.) Not long after my return to the south, there was a memorial church service for people who had died, including for my deceased sister and, as I am an atheist and I felt too raw about my own life circumstances, I chose not to attend: that choice was hard for some to understand, though not much was said about it. That decision has been characteristic of my decisions here: individualistic, regardless of the responses of others. After a few brief attempts, I have not established a relationship with the surviving sister, though for years in the north I would send her notes and things I had written and sometimes books by others that I thought would be helpful (my mother did say a few months ago that this sister felt that I hadn’t been there for her: I wonder who she imagines has been there for me?). Here, I have not been inclined to cultivate relationships old or new—which makes me an impossible person. I have not been enthusiastic about presenting myself in situations in which I might feel vulnerable. How do you give an account of yourself when your most important investments have not proved sustaining in a way that anyone recognizes? How do you justify yourself? The awful thing is that I recall several adults who behaved when I was growing up as I do now (independent and self-protective or distant, selfish, hostile) and I was either not fond of them or I was critical of them—and it is a terrible irony to do things that you feel compelled to do (or more precisely: fail to do things) that constitute choices that you yourself would not have liked or understood in times past. I am in the place in which I was born: but I am not home.

Failures of Fact

Before arriving south, I transmitted a great amount of queries regarding work in different areas, hoping that would make finding opportunities easier: but the economy here is smaller than that in the north and some publishers have experienced the same problems being felt elsewhere (thanks to the competition of new media and the loss of advertising). I did speak with an editor of a small paper, and researched several stories, none of which ended in published articles (in more than one case, a subject did not want to be interviewed on record or there was not enough information to go on):


One proposed subject for an article was the development of a boat-for-hire project along the Bayou Teche. That involved the water’s dams and locks: with the federal government likely to give over to the parish control of the locks, there was new opportunity. One of the locals, someone who had been successful in the funeral industry, had an idea for a luxury boat service, something that might appeal to vacationers, and he was aware of a second Louisiana citizen who was living in Idaho but who had an idea for offering boats for hire as exists in Europe. The first person, the funeral industry mogul, had undertaken a project years ago in which a nice boat and food and fishing had been offered for rent (I spoke with him: he had a highly rated boating crew and chefs and the possibility of fishing and golfing as part of the package: but, the high cost for using the boat, about $1800 a day, and the limited, mostly local, advertising that he did, and the fact there the boat was only used for about three or four trips a year, made it a very ambitious, interesting, but not sustainable enterprise, which had been written about by local papers when it was in service years before). He gave me the contact information for the second person, the Idaho woman; and she said she didn’t want to go public yet, explaining, “I have a dream to one day offer people this type of waterway experience. The business plan proposal is in the rough stages.”


Another subject had to do with homebuilding: in 2007, a company had planned to build three energy efficient homes a day, offering about 1,000 jobs to the local area. Needless to say, it did not reach that goal then or now; and the executives involved refused to be interviewed (they would not take or return phone calls or e-mails)—so it is not clear if the area could not sustain such plans or if the American economy, with the much-publicized problems in the home sales and mortgage industries, could not sustain that.


One local (St. Martinville) high school has two prom activities, one for whites, one for blacks; and it has been that way for years. (The actor Morgan Freeman knew of a similar situation in his native southern town, and offered to pay for a single prom, was refused years ago, but recently the town accepted and, apparently, the students enjoyed the single, shared prom.) I left messages for several people involved with prom planning at the local school under consideration and none returned my call but I did speak with the principal (he’s been principal for 8 years), and he told me that only one event is recognized by the school (the prom principally attended by blacks) and that the other (for whites) is a private party; and that prom planning begins the previous year (there are about 100 student attendees, plus guests; and no alcohol is served and students are required to stay until the end—to eliminate possibilities for trouble). Of course, he said he never heard any complaints regarding the existence of these two events. (Did the other people not return my many calls because they did not have his permission; or because they were too busy?) I felt as if the principal was just trying to put the best face on the situation, trying to discourage attention, but I did speak to a black student who said the white prom event is sponsored by the parents of involved students and is more expensive. She said the students there can wear what they want but at the official event dress is more monitored. She said she didn’t see why there couldn’t be just one prom but guessed that it was just tradition; and she thought that black and white students got along well at the school in St. Martinville.


During the last year , I have written articles on film and music and books that have appeared or are scheduled to appear in print and online, none of them local Louisiana publications.

Encore: Criticism, As Companion to Art; and As An Establishment Tool

On the web pages of City and Country, Boy and Man, “Criticism, As Companion to Art” appeared previously on April 21, 2009; and “Criticism, As An Estatablishment Tool” appeared April 27, 2009.


Criticism, As Companion to Art


I have thought of art as a necessity; and I have thought of criticism as a companion to art, and it has become a necessity as well.

I see a film and read a review of it--before seeing or after; and sometimes, if I find the film interesting enough I write a review of it. I listen to music and try to imagine how I would describe it to a friend or a disinterested acquaintance. The content I discover in a work of art or entertainment, and the pleasure I find, is deepened and extended by a review--or a bunch of reviews.

Criticism is the recovery, in language and thought, of objects from the near and distant past; and it provides context, an explanation of genre, and a disclosure of artistic strategies that are social as much as they are aesthetic. Critics can help us to understand the current work of an artist in light of standards established by the artist's own work as well as the tradition or traditions to which he or she belongs; and criticism can celebrate the highest manifestations of craft, as it introduces us to new talent or reminds us of the existence of neglected or obscure artists: describing the rare qualities of each artist.

There is little more valuable culturally than the reinterpretation of misunderstood or maligned artists, sometimes offering retrospective summaries of artists' careers: that reinterpretation can tell us as much about ourselves, our society, and our values as anything, illuminating the politics of art.

We can learn about the nature of experimental art (what is to be gleaned from it); and about false radicalism, when experiment exists merely to impress and not to express or teach. We can be reminded that art has a spirituality, that it is infused, always, with the human spirit. We can learn about each other--through folk art, international art, expanding knowledge. Criticism can help us to understand how artists express themselves in ancillary words (in books, speeches, interviews) and how that complements or contradicts their works? And criticism can help us to appreciate, to sympathize with, to tolerate, how practical matters--money and power--affect the artistic world. Criticism can be a companion to art, to us.




Criticism, As An Establishment Tool


It may be less so today than it is has been in the past, thanks to the social changes of the 1960s and 1970s and the cultural and theoretical leaps of the 1970s and 1980s, but criticism can be an establishment tool: a way to reaffirm conservative traditions and values. Criticism can be a way of solidifying the status quo, of policing works, things, and people who are different. Sometimes those people who are different are people who belong to traditional minorities--but sometimes they are people whose cultural interests are different: people who prefer Rembrandt to installation art or video; people who prefer European classical music and jazz to indie rock and hip-hop. Criticism can be used to mock, to shame. It can be used to disseminate prejudice. It can express malice and resentment toward figures of mastery, toward what is perceived as safety and security in a society that is impressed by hedonism and riot. Criticism can be a way for the mediocre to join together against excellence. It can be a form of laziness, a rebellion against having to recognize the abundant, diverse talent in the world. It can be an establishment tool simply by encouraging things as they are, the prevalence of the lowest common denominator in much of popular culture.

Encore: A Glossary of Values

Writer’s Note: “A Glossary of Values” was begun several years ago, circa 2002-2003, and this version was completed in October 2008, and appeared on the pages of the web log City and Country, Boy and Man October 22, 2008.


A GLOSSARY OF VALUES

Art – work created and crafted for aesthetic pleasure; work of beauty, depth, energy, insight, intelligence, relevance, and truth

Beauty – fineness of form; an attractive, suggestive wholeness, having physical and spiritual appeal; affectingly sensuous

Civility – a sensitive or intelligent regard for others that shapes manners and relationships; the desire and habit of avoiding injury to others; and avoidance of vulgarity and cruelty

Common Sense – assumptions based on experience; intuition; ordinary logic

Compromise – resolution of conflict or disagreement; settling for less than one’s original intention or goal in order to maintain cordiality, peace, or another important aspect of a relationship

Context – the preceding and/or surrounding history, ideas, and relationships; environment

Contradictions – conflicting ideas and feelings; the discordance between ideas and reality

Democracy - civic participation; sharing of responsibility in government, in public representation and activity

Economics – wealth generation and distribution; financial relations in a society; the system—the laws, rules, practices, and beliefs—involving money in a community, city, state, or nation

Evidence – observed fact; books and documents; trial and testing; expert testimony

Fairness – balanced or objective treatment; justice; a valuation rooted in established criteria

Form – structure; organization

Generosity – the act of giving out of choice, instinct, bounty, uncompelled giving; an open way of being, and a special sympathy of insight

Honesty – adhering to facts, intention; candor, clarity, directness; truth

Imagination – creativity, dream, invention; an ability to give vision to what does not yet exist or to see the connections between what does exist

Innovation – new forms of thought or product; experiment; changes in received orders

Intelligence – thinking ability; criticality; the capacity to weigh experience, analysis, observation, intuition, and other sources of information

Integrity – being true to the best, deepest, highest aspects of one’s character, discipline, philosophy, and character; dependable, recognizable quality;

Intellectual Rigor – thorough criticality of both details and overall structure and content

Intergenerational – the relationship between differing age groups; the potential of recognizing or responding to ideas, events, facts regardless of age

Justice - fundamental fairness, in interpretation and treatment, and regarding rewards and punishments

Knowledge - fact, truth, propositions for which there is proof; a body of evidence and insight; a tradition of knowing, speaking, and writing.

Lyricism – musicality of language; elegant and poetic diction

Multicultural – the presence of cultural diversity; an appreciation of artistic and philosophical traditions from different nations

Nuance - complexity, difference, subtlety; variety of experience, perception, and texture

Observation - what can be known through the senses and/or by study

Passion – a great intensity of feeling inspired by an idea, object, or person; an obsessive regard

Pleasure – the act or feeling of being pleased; elation, enjoyment, entertainment; a rise in spirit, a lightness of being

Power – authority, convention, and force; forms of power often work to undermine, deceive, stereotype, embarrass, intimidate, misinform, smash—as power often does whatever it takes to maintain itself

Quality - character, integrity, wholeness

Resources – useful character(s), ideas, artifacts, books, information, and tools; material that can enable one to make desired gains

Security – a belief in or sense of well-being, of necessary resources; the satisfaction of survival needs; ability or facility for self-defense and self-preservationSensuality – appeal to the senses; the facility to have or to provoke pleasant physical sensations

Spirituality – of the spirit; perception of life beyond surfaces; an abstract apprehension of the connection between living things

Subcultures – the shared habits, relationships, rituals, and values among people who aren’t dominant in a civilization or society; minority, rather than majority, culture; and often subcultural energies and forms reinvigorate the dominant culture

Technique – ability to do what is required by a given art or discipline

Tradition – the inherited culture, logic, and philosophy of an art or nation; the ongoing discourse within a discipline, with its own particular grammar and vocabulary and object or objects of concern

Understanding - comprehension; clear, right, judgment

Virtue - evidence or nature of being fine, good, right

Wackiness - eccentricity; an appreciation for, or inclination to, absurdity or wild imagination

Xenial - hospitality

Youth - early life; the spirit of possibility

Zest - energy, enjoyment, pleasure

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ian Mackenzie's novel City of Strangers

City of Strangers by Ian Mackenzie
Penguin, 2009



Can a novel be sustained without an unusual event? Individuality is channeled into different areas, into writing and business, in the fiction City of Strangers, which is set in a New York of both elegance and squalor; and the novel focuses on a writer who is asked to write a book about his father, who was decades ago a Nazi sympathizer, in a post 9/11 world of resurgent racism. The writer, Paul, is newly divorced and has a financial world success of a brother facing corruption questions. The novel City of Strangers, with its depicted street tensions, restaurants, museums, and the rest of it, is written with a language of attention and detail, of breath and muscle, of desire and fear and anger, argument and confession. The central character is a man, Paul, who clings to relationships and emotions that others want to leave behind. Violence enters Paul’s life as we all fear, and he is pushed to defend himself smartly, viciously. What occurs is unusual—and challenges expectation, if not belief.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Howards End by Edward Morgan Forster


E. M. Forster’s Howards End
Penguin Books, 2000


The early twentieth-century novel Howards End is about conflict and resolution as it relates to ideals and reality, nation and society, men and women, art and nature, intellect and impulse, and wealth and poverty. Several families who embody different values and classes meet and are contrasted: friendships, love affairs, and financial relationships evolve and are at stake. The novel Howards End is an honest and imaginative attempt to come to grips with modern English society and what it seemed to be becoming—in terms of the development of capitalism and city life and their impact on individual opportunities and choices. Forster was aware of much and that awareness was invested in his novel—and calls to the reader’s own awareness. Howards End is a genuinely engaging and deeply impressive novel.

The life of the mind that is created for Margaret and her sister Helen, with art and theatre and reading and discussion, comes out of genuine observation, while the money-making, property-hoarding, and status-consciousness of Henry Wilcox and his family is equally believable. The vulnerability of the poor clerk Leonard Bast, who wants to belong to a world of culture, is too recognizable. With these characters the novelist E. M. Forster creates a story of human relationships in which larger forces—not only human psychology but environmental nature and spirituality, as well as social progress—are at work. It is, really, a very large vision, an exacting task: making the novel an aesthetic object, and something of use, a resource for understanding.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Stephen L. Carter's novel Jericho's Fall


Stephen L. Carter, Jericho’s Fall
Knopf, 2009



I liked Stephen Carter’s first three fiction novels, The Emperor of Ocean Park, New England White, and Palace Council, novels that could be considered a trilogy, as they shared some of the same characters, focusing on a segment of educated and wealthy African-Americans we do not see much of in literature. His books are intelligent entertainments and yet what is surprising, thrilling, and troubling is the degree to which conspiracies and conspiracy theories are at the core of these books. That corresponds to the paranoia of a victimized minority as well as the political analysis of certain radicals. Carter’s novel Jericho’s Fall is about an aging, seemingly ill government man, now retired, who threatens to reveal state secrets and financial secrets. His former lover, a young woman, returns to attend his death bed. His daughters are there, one of them very hostile. They are all under surveillance, and in danger. Where is the evidence the great man has and what will he do with it?


The novel moves fast through conversations and acts, featuring intriguing characters, and often there is believable emotional weight as well as interesting political speculations. Carter’s use of language (in narrative and dialogue) is at a high-level with only of few points of stiffness. However, near the story’s end, I found the leading character’s response to a fatal event too lacking in affect—his coolness then is unlikely, not quite human, even for someone whose work has required monstrous calculations. Yet Stephen Carter’s work is engaging for his ability to suggest the kind of characters who can create or earn and hold and handle great wealth and power. The reader does not feel the cheapness or emptiness that can accompany reading such depictions, the exploitative flavor. Carter has a genuine and admirable talent. In the novel, as the great man’s enemies circle, approach, and attempt to do their worst, we read something that allows us to imagine the consequences of certain amoral ways of being in the world.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Human Stain by Philip Roth


Philip Roth, The Human Stain
Houghton Mifflin, 2000


The Human Stain considers individuality versus collectivity, secrecy versus disclosure, and social constraints versus freedom, and its author Philip Roth has a sense of invention equal to his ideas: the invention not only illustrates his ideas, it fulfills a view of humanity. Every novel recreates the world, and The Human Stain is a book written out of Philip Roth’s full intelligence, observations, and sympathy, a book, entertaining, rich, wise, that both accepts and protests human society. Philip Roth questions society with a persistence that indicates a genuine radicality. In The Human Stain, Philip Roth depicts the failure of intelligent professionals to use reason and morality when it matters most: in a real situation occurring on campus. A man who has helped to make the reputation of the college in which he works, Coleman Silk, is ruined by an obviously bogus charge of racism. Colman Silk, a professor of the classics, of Greek tragedies, has a life that is both strangely and believably complex (charged with racism, he is actually a light-skinned African-American passing for white; and he is having an affair with a woman half his age, a woman who claims to be illiterate). Coleman’s life demonstrates a variation of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, being the life of a man living in the world without full notice. Roth’s novel, as well, uses the Clinton administration and the Monica Lewinsky scandal as one frame, allowing the writer—through that and Coleman’s late life affair—to explore the madness and refreshment of sex. Good fiction always seems to fight the fact that it is fiction, drawing on power from dynamic, real world sources, while taking flight with human imagination, as this one does.

The human stain is blood, semen, skin; it is fundamental fact and what is made of it. I wish James Baldwin were here to read such a book: I imagine he would applaud Roth’s claiming the character, the subject, and showing, once more, how confining and crazy a matter race is, and the resources of American personality—while dynamically dealing with masculinity and sexuality. Depiction of Coleman Silk’s early life presents women who are vivid and embody different aspects of experience, different values, teaching Silk something about himself and the world. So many people’s values and interpretations are less complex than human experience, compelling them to reject what they cannot comprehend (instead of modifying their values and interpretations, they reject experience). Sophistication, like a genuine education, involves mastering many things that are important and difficult because they are real, and not just if and when they please. Faunia, the college custodian and farm worker who becomes Coleman Silk’s last lover, calls the human stain the trace that humans contain and leave behind.

Roth, as a writer, renews his (our) sense of who and where the characters are as the novel continues. Faunia does a dance for her lover and her body is described in terms of what has marked her body (work, lovemaking). She, who has been mistreated in other relationships, requests nothing more than a sexual relationship from Coleman, but she is not simply a body, she is a mind and spirit and she seems to know more than people who are better placed. Faunia thinks of how the charge of racism is not simply an event, but how it works backward to taint an entire career and life. Roth imagines what is beneath the surface of a woman who has been abused and who is often dismissed by others, showing her depth and her limitation. It is Faunia who thinks of the human stain as what the human being contains and leaves behind, the human trace. Both Coleman and Faunia are threatened by her former husband, who is himself traumatized by his experience in the Vietnam war.

Philip Roth seems to want to enrich our sense of the present by increasing our knowledge of the past—the pagan Greek roots of western civilization, the rigorous intelligence too: we must accept complexity, contradiction, multiplicity, plenitude. Roth captures perfectly the petty, imperceptive judgments of the politically correct (such as of feminists who judge without knowing a French woman intellectual, their colleague, a woman whose surface is glamorous and whose exile is profound and whose flaw is dangerous: a woman whose mind is her gift and her trap). Roth allows every character her/his story, with understanding and fulfillment, fulfillment in acceptance of knowledge or ignorance, in acts of love or hate; and he dramatizes demonology, how individuals are interpreted as villains by communities. He is carrying on an American tradition—the critique of American ethical thinking.

The ability to take moral offense is the only power some people have—but they rarely take offense at the workings of institutions or communities that have power over them or in which they participate: rather, they take offense at individuals, often strangers. Their moral sense is rooted in self-interest, and in weakness. I am tempted to call this a bitterly wise book.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

What Do People Do When They Are Free? (Comments On Culture and Politics)


Are the resources of civilization dependable, pervasive—or are they only present in isolated circles, active in the lives of the privileged—or the very humble? What do people choose to do when they have significant resources; when they are free? Shakespeare and Henry James and other writers asked those questions, giving us characters well-placed enough, intelligent and sensitive enough, resourceful enough to ask and answer those questions. We ask those questions of the famous and the fortunate, of the gifted, of the strange. It is why we are curious about and suspicious of them. It is why we some of us do not often respect the fact that private life is one thing and public life another, subjecting the private life of the distinguished to the gossipy and the puritanical, to crude ways of learning and judging.


Established attitudes and philosophies, whether of appreciation or repudiation, liberty or repression, tend to cloud judgment: one can affirm or deny new phenomena, regardless of its fundamental qualities, for reasons having to do with its superficial conformity to established patterns. Consequently, artists and intellectuals consider and practice rebellion, subversion. It seems to me, as well, that what is subversive subtext in the arts of one generation becomes part of the dominant form and content for the next generation—and possibly inconsequently for subsequent generations.


Artists and intellectuals do not follow—they lead: we lead—and sometimes we have so much we want to achieve that our own intensity frightens others. They understand so little of what goes into art or disciplined thought. They do not understand the commitment or the sacrifice (or that artists may require a certain stability but do not require normality). They do not understand the work itself. Writing, for instance, requires discipline and passion, imagination and insight—and it is not trivial. Unfortunately, I used to live in close proximity to someone who thought she was a writer because she kept a diary of her dull life: such incomprehension is enough to inspire laughter so profound one ends in tears. In the last several months, I have been trying to return to a novel I began writing—and I have learned anew how difficult it is to be creative…


The novel Glover’s Mistake by Nick Laird (Viking, 2009) is focused on friendship, love, betrayal, and technology in London, and shows how corrupting loneliness and self-pity can be, and the ways the internet can be used for sabotage and deception. The lead characters are David, an extremely shy man, his flatmate Glover, and David’s former teacher, a famous artist named Ruth, with whom Glover becomes involved with. David presents in himself a destructive view of a critic and blogger, and Ruth, whose work as an artist seems clever but slight, is no model either: David, though quite smart, is narrow in perspective, hateful, and Ruth is work-obsessed in ways that are respectably serious and vainly silly, self-indulgent. (Glover’s religious orientation makes him simple and intolerant.) The novel is intelligent and contains some truth but lacked something—grace? spirit? wisdom?


On Harvard literature professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., after a false claim of burglary and being arrested in his own home. Jan Ramsey, editor of New Orleans’ Offbeat magazine: “I’m afraid I’d have to question why a policeman would arrest a man once he found out he was not an intruder, but was in his own home. Yes, Mr. Gates was angry (rightfully so) and ‘sassed’ the cop. But there are just too many cops out there (speaking from numerous personal experiences) who take it upon themselves to bust innocent people because they (police) are offended by what someone says to them. Smarting off is not necessarily questioning their authority, and it certainly isn't an offense punishable by law. I’m not saying all policemen do this, but I’ve known way too many people who were thrown into jail for asking a simple question, like ‘What’s your badge number?’ I've also known too many African-Americans who have been harassed by cops simply because they are black. I think we might invest in more sensitivity training and less testosterone-driven response from the people who are supposed to be enforcing the law.”


Apparently, singer-songwriter Chico Debarge performed last Sunday in New York’s Central Park; and he has a new album, called Addiction.


…Some of my favorite summer songs are Sly and the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” Ephraim Lewis’s “Summer Lightning,” and Diana Ross’s interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s and Sharon Robinson’s “Summertime.”…


Diana Ross turned 65 earlier this year and is one of the more interesting and valuable women of her era, of our time, though she is not always recognized as such. (How many women are celebrated as they age?) Of course, we have not been living in a heroic age these last few decades: it has been an ignoble time and the Mary Wilson Syndrome has prevailed. The Mary Wilson Syndrome: Mary Wilson is a fool and a mediocrity—but her particular kind of stupidity (her ignorance, prejudices, and resentments) are shared by others, so when she speaks those others experience her as telling the truth. Diana Ross, a woman of genuine accomplishment, has a fine intelligence—but that is rare, and when Ross speaks, though she may be perfectly logical and clear, that articulation can be less resonant. Mary Wilson has built a career on being mediocre, on claiming victimhood, on nothing more than shared resentments. Years ago, many people wanted to be better than they were, more accomplished, more intelligent: but these days, many people prefer to be comfortably stupid.


Louisiana music has been celebrated, though its diversity is not always commented upon: the new fiddle music album by Linzay Young and Joel Savoy, features traditional south Louisiana folk music (and the album cover has a good photograph of the two men, with Savoy looking strikingly handsome, like a young Henry Fonda, with a face that exudes dignity, brooding intelligence, purpose). The women’s group Bonsoir Catin’s new album Vive L’Amour, from Valcour (as is the Young/Savoy music), is also traditional; and has an attractive cover too, as does every Valcour release I’ve seen. Which reminds me of an interview I heard with a young musician in which he discussed the burden of tradition: wondering if he was making the music as it had been made in the past, and how free of that worry he felt when he was doing newer music, which included contemporary rhythms and electronic experimentation. The new Bad Chad and the Good Girls album (from Soul of the Boot Entertainment) features such experimentation and I’m not sure what I think of it. (Although I thought that I was listening to a wide range of music—folk, indie rock, jazz, world music, and some popular music—I realized that I hadn’t been listening to anything like that.) Kenny Cornett and Killin’ Time’s Flat Fleet album (CSP Records), which came up months ago, is of early and famous rock songs (and again, I can see both the appeal and limits of tradition there). Certain forms of music are fine as long as you have an alternative to them—but if they are your only frame and resource, they are too limited to provide a full perspective of the world or of life’s possibilities (that is often true of older forms, such as folk music, and newer forms, such as hip-hop).


It has been reported that Vibe magazine is ceasing publication: and now, something or someone else will have to be at the forefront of marketing music for morons. Is that unfair? Yes, not all the music reported on was dumb, sexist, homophobic, and violent, though much of it was. Vibe was a consumer magazine of popular journalism covering hip-hop and rhythm-and-blues. I hope the music and the journalism covering it will be better in the future—and that the music will be judged by its best forms rather than its worst, the way other forms of music are. (For me, regarding hip-hop, the best would include A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Queen Latifah, P.M. Dawn, mostly artists active in the early to mid 1990s.) [Writer's Note: In August 2009, there was a subsequent report that the magazine would appear online, and then in print quarterly.]


Limiting African-American commentary to “black subjects” demonstrates disrespect for African-American intelligence and subverts the establishment of African-American cultural authority.


Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing has an anniversary this year, having been released in 1989. That was an important film and is still worthy of comment, though it’s not my favorite of his works. Spike Lee is not the best African-American filmmaker of his generation, but he’s the most important—he has asked significant questions about America and the place of people of color in it. He has, like James Baldwin before him, taken on the burden of African-American history, and the weight has both deformed and empowered his work. If more artists took on such questions, it is possible that the art produced would in time be better (as most things do with practice)—we would see a variety of styles and subjects, but with only a few artists doing so, the art produced tends to be overwhelmed by the issues involved.


I admired James Baldwin for many qualities, such as his eloquence and his honesty; however, when it came to film he wrote a piece on Ingmar Bergman that I liked, but he spent the bulk of his film commentary complaining about American films of decades past. I wondered more than once why he didn’t focus on international film and the independent American films that progressively addressed the issues he raised. The mid-1970s book that he did on film, The Devil Finds Work, would have been richer had he dealt with some of the more interesting films being made at the time the book was written and published.


“I was a solipsist and a narcissist and much too arrogant,” he said. “I have a lot more compassion now, but it took a long time” admitted film critic Andrew Sarris, thinking over his early career, in the New York Times (the article by Michael Powell was placed online July 9th; and in print July 12th). That is the same early career that Sarris’s volunteer publicist Kent Jones and others are eager to defend (I used to read Sarris’s Village Voice work and even his later New York Observer work, but it is hard for me to have much regard for someone who feuds with a dead woman, as Sarris has for a long time). Sarris, a dinosaur, will now be writing for Film Comment: that publication and its editor, like Jones, are eager to eat his droppings.


I’m not fond of biographies these days but Shawn Levy has a new biography of Paul Newman and it looks as if it’s not disrespectful of the actor, whom I like very much, and I’m thinking of reading it.


I’m curious about Meryl Streep’s new film, Julie and Julia, focusing on the work of chef Julia Child.


It has been announced that the beautiful, smart, and sometimes tough actress Charlize Theron is planning to make a movie of Christopher Buckley’s novel Florence of Arabia, a satire.


The online Art Daily has announced that in Amsterdam “The Van Gogh Museum is hosting the first retrospective in thirty years of Belgian artist Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) from 18 September 2009 until 24 January 2010. Stevens was one of the most well-known artists in Paris in the second half of the 19th century. He caused a furore with his paintings of elegant, intriguing and distant women.” (The two illustrations used on the site are gorgeous, the kind of images I imagine Henry James would have loved.)


Reverend Ike, who celebrated prosperity as an important part of his ministry has died. (I remember him as being very funny.)


According to The Economist business week e-newsletter (July 30th): Microsoft and Yahoo have formed a business partnership to bring together their internet search and advertising capacities. Housing sales rose in June. Verizon is cutting 8,000 jobs.


Joe Conason has an article on the online Rasmussen Reports arguing that President Obama should ask Bill Clinton for help in defending his health proposals. What nonsense. (Conason should have written article about how sound Obama’s proposals are: instead, he’s merely championing his own desire for the same old white messenger. It’s time for something new and someone new—that’s what the election was about. Change is difficult and we’re in the midst of it now.)


The Economic Policy Institute has produced analysis of the health care debate and the ideas involved, available online; and I’m hoping to get a chance to review that material soon.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Philip Roth's novel Indignation


Indignation by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008



Yesterday I completed reading a review copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, scheduled for September 2009 distribution: the stories are enjoyable, and by using music as a reference in the different stories, the book performs a study of art, appreciation, and celebrity in our time, saying things we might be afraid to say as we do not want to be thought hateful or weak. Last week, I read Philip Roth’s 2008 novel Indignation.

Indignation is the story of a smart Jewish boy whose father’s worries alienate the boy and drive him away from their New Jersey home to an Ohio college. There the young man meets a crazy, sexy blonde and has his first sexual experience. His conflicts with others, including authority figures, leads to moments of self-affirming anger—that are also self-endangering.

Indignation is a coming of age story, a college novel, a Jewish family story, a war story, and a tale of American individuality—the kind of individuality that leads to both brilliance and self-destruction. It is easy to conclude that Roth has an easy mastery of his material—and is able to anticipate and fulfill (or defeat) a reader’s expectations. I found myself having a reservation about the book—thinking the story too small, or too conventional, only to have the story explode that reservation in the next few pages. I thought the students too insular, too self-involved, and then they indulged themselves in a panty raid and the college president offered a scathing analysis on the real context of their lives, on all the important facts and values they were ignoring, addressing and vanquishing my reservations.

Indignation, about learning and sex and life and death, is a good book: it has its value, and its resonance. However, I wonder about the use of a crazed, precociously sexual young woman in fictions depicting the 1950s, as a symbol of both experience and experience repressed. Books tend to represent these women as exceptional—and yet there seem to be so many in books. Is that a male misunderstanding of female sensibility—or a cliché writers cannot let go?

Friday, July 17, 2009

African-American Philosophical Fiction (Suggestions)

Last year, I circulated this notice:

...I am interested in compiling a bibliography primarily focused on African-American short, philosophical fiction stories: short stories in which explored are facts, ideas, issues, myths, questions, and relationships involving or regarding being, existence, knowledge, logic, and, also, aesthetics, ethics, values, and wisdom. I am interested in stories in which characters are conscious or become conscious of the complexity of mind, self, society, and life, and grapple with that complexity or those complexities, whether the forms of the stories in which those characters appear are conventional linear narratives or experimental. How does the individual come to understand life and mind, and then incorporate his or her understanding into his or her actions and relationships with the world, whether those relationships are intellectual, intimate, familial, social, or political? Do you know of such stories, new or old, and would you pass on the titles of the stories and the authors’ names?... I would love it if the information you provided were complete, including publication information and a summary of the story (such as author’s name, story title, magazine/journal/book title, page number, publication issue number, year published, name and location of publisher, and ISBN or ISSN—with the principal theme and/or plot identified); but—if you do not have that detailed publishing information, nor the time and patience to acquire it, that is not necessary: the story title and the author’s name are a good start. (If there are unpublished stories you are aware of, for each please supply me with the author’s name, the story title, and author’s contact information as best you know it.)...


And I received some responses, including these:

Randall Kenan, “Let the Dead Bury their Dead”, in Let the Dead Bury their Dead (San Diego & New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1992), pp. 271-334. ISBN: 0 15 650515 0This is a fabulous story that is based around the oral history of two old African Americans about the history of their town. On each page, beneath their account, Kenan offers lengthy footnotes – an obvious wink to white, dominant discourse, but many of the footnotes are fictional. At various points through the narrative, Kenan also includes diary extracts from the slave holding white family whose runaway slave founded the community that the African Americans are discussing in their oral history. The story raises issues of memories vs facts, modes of discourse etc. When I teach this it is also fascinating to ask students which part of the story they were most drawn too (oral history or footnotes) and about the order in which they read them – oral first then footnotes, or a simultaneous reading. Ultimately, it touches on many, if not all, of the issues that you are interested in – indeed, you may already be fully aware of Kenan’s work.

Best wishes

Sarah Robertson

Dr Sarah Robertson
Senior Lecturer of American Literature
University of the West of England
(August 9, 2008)
--------------------------------

You might want to check out John Holman, a wonderful but under-appreciated writer with two books (Luminous Mysteries and Squabble) who directs the creative writing program at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He fits your prescription perfectly. Also look into Sefi Atta at her Web site. She was born in Nigeria, now lives in Meridian, Mississippi.

All best,

Frederick Barthelme
(August 10, 2008)
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There are many, many such stories, which I think meet your requirements.
I can, right away, think of 5 to share:

1. Toni Morrison’s short story "Recitatif"
2. Arna W. Bontemps’s “A Summer Tragedy”
3. Alice Walker’s “Advancing Luna and Ida B. Wells”
4. Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Gilded Six Bits”
5. Richard Wright’s “Big Boy Leaves Home”

Good Luck!

All best,
Sandy Alexandre
(August 10, 2008)
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I forward your inquiry to Reggie Young of the English Department who specializes in African-American literature. The only material we have in the archives collection which would be relevant are the stories of Ernest J. Gaines. Most of those have been published.

Bruce Turner
Head of Special Collections, Edith Garland Dupré Library,
University of Louisiana at Lafayette
(August 11, 2008)
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I don’t have time to give you all the info you request, but look at the first known work of Af. Am. fiction: Douglass' “Heroic Slave.”

Also look at Du Bois' stories, esp. “The Coming of John” in Souls.

All of Ralph Ellison’s short fiction is central to your interests.

Charles Chesnutt short stories are also central.

There’s a lot more, but these are a good start.

Best,
John Stauffer
(August 14, 2008)
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My suggestions:
“The Coming of John” by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (a stand-alone short story in the book)
“One Man’s Initiation” by Paul Laurence Dunbar in the modern library Sport of the Gods and Other Essential Writing by Paul laurence Dunbar ed Shelley Fisher Fishkin and David Bradley (Random House)

Sorry that other commitments prevent me from spending any more time responding to your query.

SFF/Shelley Fisher Fishkin
(August 17, 2008)
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My top two picks would be:

The chapter entitled “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” from Richard Wright's Black Boy and the story “The Coming of John” from Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois.

Dr. Anna Stubblefield
Chair, Department of Philosophy
Rutgers University-Newark
(January 9, 2009)