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.