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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Slave in the White House

Paul Jennings, born in 1799, was a remarkable American. He came to Washington at age 10, when the nation's capital was more a plan on paper than a city of magnificent national edifices. He lived in the White House. He helped save the iconic portrait of Gen. George Washington from the flames of the British assault on DC in 1812. He wrote the 1st White House memoir. He participated in the largest attempt of slaves to flee for freedom in the nation's history.

And he accomplished much of this as a Black slave, owned by both President James Madison and later by Madison's wife, Dolley, and eventually freed with financial help from the great American statesman and orator Daniel Webster.

Today, Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, came to the National Archives to talk about her book A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madison and provide insights into the life and deeds of Madison's manservant.

Jennings was born in Virginia, one of about 100 slaves Madison held at his Montpelier estate. He moved with Madison as his manservant to the White House.  After Madison's death, Dolley was supposed to free Jennings, but she reneged on the deal. He was able to purchase his freedom in 1845 and worked to free the rest of the members of his family. In his 1st year of freedom, he helped 77 slaves in DC unsuccessfully attempt to flee to freedom in the North hidden aboard the schooner "The Pearl." In 1865, he wrote A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison, a book which historians agree is the 1st White House memoir. When he died in 1874 after a 2nd career as a paid governmental worker, he owned not 1, but 2 homes at the corner of L and 14th Street in Washington.

"(Jennings') story is one of determined courage and a successful pursuit of the right to rise, one of the fundamental cornerstones of the American Dream," Taylor said."Sometimes, we think of slaves in the collective, but Jennings' story shows that each slave was an individual with their own talents and desires."

During the question and answer period, Taylor was asked how Madison, and indeed George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, could have been president of a country founded on freedom and still have held slaves.

"There's no direct answer," Taylor said. "Today, we look at slavery as a moral issue, but they (the founding Presidents) knew it as a moral issue, too."

For his part, Madison called slavery "an evil of great magnitude no matter what way you look at it."
But the 4th president, like his slave-owning predecessors, was still a man trapped by the conventions and mores of his time. "He may have felt it was a great blot, but he could not envision a pluralistic society (made up of Whites and Blacks). He felt 'we can't share our country with them.'''

Madison favored what he called a double operation. In his view, any emancipation would have to be joined with the transportation of America's Black populace to western Africa for colonization. "As immoral and shameful as he thought slavery was, he put up with it," Taylor said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Her 1st questioner asked Taylor what it was like appearing as a guest on The Daily Show with John Stewart. Taylor called her appearance, which occurred on the 2nd day her book had been released, extremely fortunate timing. "It helped give the book a great sendoff," she said. "It was great fun. I was very nervous for weeks, but I was able to get a grip and really enjoy it" You can check out the interview with Stewart by clicking here.

Words About London from Those Who Know

You could examine Craig Taylor's new book about London and Londoners by the numbers. It would read like this. Five years of interviews. More than 200 people interviewed. 84 included in the final book. 960,000 words before editing (enough to fill 10 books). 300 double-A batteries for his tape recorder.

But that would miss the point. Taylor, a Canadian who has lived in London for the past 12 years, hasn't written a book about urban statistics; what he has written is a book about the thoughts and feelings of people, specifically people who call London their city.

Tonight, the loquacious and youthful looking Taylor appeared at Politics and Prose to discuss his newest work entitled Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now - As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It.

Taylor began by thanking the large crowd, almost all of whom indicated with a show of hands that they had lived in or visited London. He contrasted the size with the last book talk he gave in Britain. "Only 1 person came," he said with a laugh. "It was a a shame because I had brought 3 actors to read the voices (of those included in the book). And I think that 1 person just came in to get out of the rain."

The book - modeled in the format of that mastered by oral biographer Studs Turkel - was a result of Taylor's natural curiosity and his "very complicated love affair" with London.

"London is not a city that welcomes you with a red carpet when you arrive. I felt the city was pushing me out," Taylor said. So, to better understand his new city, he took to the streets and pubs, letting people tell of their own often complicated relationships to London in their own voices.

Taylor called his work a snapshot, not a complete picture. "My publisher hates it when I say this, but the book is a big failure of sorts. I was never able to define London.  I wanted to explore how elastic that term Londoner is by wrenching it from its old, staid definition," he said.

With the upcoming 2012 Olympics scheduled for London, Taylor said he feared "a great rose tint is about to descend on the city" and he wanted to capture the negative as well as positive aspects people believe are an integral part of London life. "Some people hate London, but there are great, imaginative ways to express that hatred," Taylor said.

The love/hate dichotomy was evident in the 3 selections Taylor chose to reads to the audience. There were the words of Emma Clark, the "mind the gap" voice of the London Tube Underground whose former boyfriend bemoaned the fact that he would now keep hearing his former companion wherever he went. There was the intriguing Miss Absolute, a dominatrix who convinced the wrong man to get down in the London streets and kiss her boot. And then there was the hilarious voice of Tim, a financial worker who insisted he lived in "Londin," not London. Here's how he describes his Londin life:

I get on the Tube at Elephant and Castle. I get off the Tube at Bank and go to work. The next day I get on the Tube at Elephant and Castle. I get off the Tube at Bank and go to work. The next day I get on the Tube at Elephant and Castle. I get off the Tube at Bank and go to work. The next day I get on the Tube at Elephant and Castle. I get off at Bank and go to work. I don't think I know what an elephant is anymore. I can't really summon the mental image on an elephant. I hear that word and I just start walking to work.

Taylor said that the Terkel kind of storytelling has no formulastic plan, no one proscribed method of doing it properly. "I think you just shut the hell up. Don't interrupt. Just let the people go," he said. Of course, the final product does involve organizing and manipulating subjects' words for clarity. "This was not just smash and grab journalism. There was some massaging of reality, but I feel pretty comfortable that I was true to these people," Taylor maintained.

Asked what he learned about the people he interviewed, Taylor said he was constantly amazed at how much expertise people possess. "I mean there's a woman (the dominatrix) who beats people on the ass. But that's expertise. I was in such a privileged position to hear these people's stories." he said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
I love Politics and Prose. With its 500 book talks a year, knowledgeable staff, and well-stocked shelves, it is my favorite bookstore, not just in DC but in the whole world. But Politics and Prose outdid itself tonight. I am a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen and you can imagine how elated I was when I discovered that P&P had the new Springsteen CD Wrecking Ball for sale, a full week before its scheduled release. And with a gift  card my son, daughter-in-law and 2 grandkids had given me for Christmas, I was able to pick up both Taylor's book and new Springsteen CD for free. Thanks Michael, Shannon, Audrey, and Owen. And thanks Politics and Prose.

Monday, February 27, 2012

How Do We Overcome Today?

Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallah prepares the program
They came - the full-figured homeless woman who distributes her newspaper; the openly-gay young Howard student; the Latino transgender; the striking young woman angered by Rick Santorum's anti-black, anti-poor rhetoric; the activist from Cameroon - to hear 2 living legends of the Civil Rights era talk about the 1960s struggle for justice. (See post below).

But an overflow crowd that packed Busboys and Poets tonight also came to see if former SNCC (Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee) protesters John Lewis and Julian Bond and discussion moderator and DC Congressional representative Eleanor Holmes Norton could offer them words of wisdom and guidance for the battles they believe should, and must, be fought today.

Lewis agreed there is still much work to be done if we want to, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, "redeem the soul of America."

"It's too quiet," he said. "We're not there yet. People are hurting. People are still suffering."

All 3 panelists pointed out that while injustice remains, today's times are simply not the same as those of the 20th Century and earlier.

"The issues today are different. We would fail if we were to ask you to do the same things we did.  Don't feel sorry you didn't get your head beat (in the 60s) like John Lewis did. Understand what you can do to make a revolution today," Norton said.

As an example, she cited the case of 22-year-old DC resident Molly Katchpole, who, while working 2 jobs and living paycheck-to-paycheck, took on the powerful Bank of America and got that financial institution to rescind its decision to add an additional $5 banking fee.  "Your inspirational leaders are here today. Trust me, that young woman will go down in the history books. She used Facebook. We had a mimeograph machine. You have the internet, your cell phones, your iPads," she said.

Lewis cautioned anyone interested in change to make sure they stayed on the proper, high moral road. "We used our bodies as a nonviolent weapon. We were beaten back, but we always came back. We walked with dignity and pride.  We didn't walk with our pants down around our butts," he said

Bond said it is paramount to remember that when it comes to justice, all Americans should be in the battle together. He said he was particularly disturbed with studies indicating that black Americans are the most homophobic Americans. "It's shameful. It's disgusting," he said, noting that blacks should be leading the way for all people in the fight for rights.

Bond also cautioned anyone interested in change not to discard older institutions such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which was founded in 1909. "There is a reason why it is always the last man standing," Bond said, noting that the organization has survived attacks from lynchings to a southern federal judge calling it "Niggers, Apes, Alligators, Possums, and Coons" from the bench of the US court. "It still is the organization of change for most people," Bond said. "When people face discrimination, they don't call Michael Jackson. They don't even call Michael Jordan. They call the NAACP," Bond said.

Lewis said that while the struggle for equality and justice can be painful, and, at times, painfully slow, change can come. Sometimes it is on a national level. But sometimes it is more personal. Lewis told of a visit he had from an older white Southerner. "Mr. Lewis," the man said. "I was one of the ones that beat you. I was wrong. I am sorry. He cried. I cried. We hugged," Lewis said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
There's no doubt that tonight's session was one of the most moving and most informative events Judy and I have attended since we moved to DC. Although probably none of the participants  will ever read this post, I want to thank John Lewis, Julian Bond, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, for all they have done and continue to do to make America better. I also want to thank all the young people who attended last night, fully intending to continue the battle so that my grandchildren can have an even better America. It is also fitting to thank owner operator Andy Shallah and all the staff of Busboys and Poets who work so diligently to offer a regular venue for such powerful social programs. So, to all of you, a big heartfelt thanks.


2 Legends of Civil Rights

A Civil Rights Trio: John Lewis, Julian Bond and Eleanor Norton Holmes
For John Lewis, one of the most beaten, bloodied, but never bowed veterans of the Civil Rights era, the decision to become involved in the Freedom Movement was as simple as black and white.


"I grew up in the South and I saw the for whites and for coloreds only signs and I didn't like it," says Lewis, now a long-time Congressman from Georgia. "My parents were worried and said 'don't get in the way' but Dr. Martin Luther King inspired me to get in the way, to get into trouble."

Tonight, Lewis was joined at Busboys and Poets by his friend of more than 50 years and fellow Civil Rights activist Julian Bond, a longtime Georgia legislator and now a DC-area professor, for an informative, insightful 2-hour discussion by 2 revered black men who not only lived history, but made it.

Bond said he was called to the movement as a young Morehouse College student appalled by "the system of apartheid" operating in the south in America at that time. "The society would not let me achieve all I could have or should have," Bond told the overflow crowd, which packed the Langston Hughes room and even filled every foot of the stage which wasn't being used by the 2 presenters and the night's moderator, DC Congress representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, herself a member of  many of the same battles that Lewis and Bond fought.

In fact, the Lewis/Bond/Norton trio, all early members of SNCC (The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) encapsulated many of the attributes that led to the actual overcoming of America's blatantly policies and laws: Lewis with his courage and firebrand oratory (Bond called him "the bravest, most courageous person we had ever met"), Bond with his erudite brilliance and impressive writing talents, and Norton with her keen legal mind.

History has shown that SNCC, often referred to as the shock troops of Civil Rights, played a crucial role in forcing America, and particularly the South, to finally live up to the creeds called for in its Constitution. "Jimmy Carter said if you wanted to scare Southerners, the name of Martin Luther King wouldn't do that. You just needed to say 4 letters S-N-C-C," Bond said.

Obviously, much of the night was filled with riveting inside tales of the turbulent 60s. For example, Bond told a fascinating story about how he was able to obtain housing for a group of alternate Georgia delegates to the infamous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago."I was in charge of finding rooms for about 50 people and, of course, we couldn't. The Convention was in town," Bond said. After being turned down at yet another hotel, he was approached by a well-dressed black man who said maybe he could help. The bow-tied man went back into the hotel and returned having procured the needed rooms. But a towering problem still remained - Bond and his group had no money. The man replied that Bond should see if his boss - a certain gentleman by the name of Right Honorable Prophet Elijah Muhammad - could help. So a meeting was arranged where Bond would ask the leader of the Black Muslims and his followers for financial assistance. Bond said after making his plea, the Muslim women said the money which "he'll give to the White devil" should not be offered. The Muslim men said it should. Mohammad turned to Bond and said, "we listen to the women, but we do what the men say to do" and handed him $3,000.

Lewis jokingly noted that he "wore a backpack before it was fashionable." In that backpack, he stored at least 2 books, a toothbrush, toothpaste, 1 apple, and 1 orange so he would always be prepared for yet another of the inevitable jailings for his protest.

While SNCC was committed to the high moral road of non-violence in both rhetoric and action, such a stance was extremely difficult given the range of assaults against members. Bond recalled one time when group leader James Farmer exclaimed: "If we can't sit at the table, we're going to tear the fucking legs off the table."

And while all the various Civil Rights groups tried to work together for the good of the cause, disputes about terms and tactics could arise. Lewis detailed the story behind his altering his speech at the 1963 March on Washington, the same protest that produced Martin Luther King's immortal "I Have a Dream" speech. Lewis was one of 6 Civil Rights speakers scheduled that day. However, when a preview copy of his remarks was circulated, objections arose over their nature, specifically lines that said if advances in Civil Rights were not immediately forthcoming, African-Americans would be "forced to march through Georgia the way (Civil War General) Sherman did." Lewis said he was called to a meeting to get him to temper his remarks. "Dr. King pulled me aside and said 'John, this doesn't sound like you,'" Lewis said, explaining that eventually he was allowed to give an altered speech.

Several of the tales filled with violence elicited gasps from the crowd, many of whom were born long-after the 60s. Lewis recalled his encounter with an Alabama sheriff who carried a gun on 1 hip, a nightstick on the other, and an electrified cattle prod in his hand. "I think he woke up mean," Lewis said. "He was a sick, vicious man." Norton recalled finding 50-year-old Fannie Lou Hamer brutally beaten in a sweltering Mississippi jail simply for having the audacity to believe she had the right to vote. Norton said even more horrifying was the fact the white jailers had forced a black trustee of the jail to administer Hamer's beating, threatening him with even worse brutality if he didn't submit to their orders.

Lewis and Bond said they were particularly gratified to see so many young people in attendance.  Bond pointed out that much of the initial Civil Rights push was "youth-oriented." Lewis agreed, but added the caution that the fight for freedom can bring danger, no matter what the age of the participant. He specifically cited the Mississippi murders of  20-year-old southern black James Chaney and his two white activist northern partners, 20-year-old Andrew Goldman and 24-year-old Michael Schwerner.

"They just wanted to help," Lewis said. "They were jailed and then turned over to the Klan. And then they were murdered. We talk about terrorism. This was terrorism. The South was terrorist territory. They didn't die in Vietnam, they died right here in our country," Lewis said, noting that they and all the others who sacrificed for the struggle should never be forgotten.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
In her opening remarks, Norton set the stage well for the remarkable 2 hours that were to follow. "This is Black History month and you're supposed to find yourself some blacks in a history book or somewhere," she said. "We thought we'd bring you some live TV tonight. There's lots of black history walking around the streets everyday. Tonight, we have 2 legends, 2 veterans of the campaigns when the South (for blacks) was terrorist territory."

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Talking Basketball and Art

Ball and Chain by Thomas Hank Willis
When Darrel Walker was growing up in the tough projects of  Chicago in the 1960s, he remembers that only 2 pieces of art adorned the walls  of his home - one picture of Martin Luther King and one of John F. Kennedy. "That is what Grandma Velma had in the house," the ex-NBA player and former head coach of both the Washington Wizards and the Toronto Raptors says.

Now, however, he has become a leading collector of African American art and today appeared at The National Gallery with his friend, former NBA player, and fellow art collector Elliot Perry to detail his journey from the inner city to professional basketball to the world of avid art collection.

Walker credits former New York Knicks star Bernard King (who he describes as the Godfather of  the small group of NBA players/art collectors) with leading him to discover his passion for art. "As a young player I just wanted to go to the clubs and hang out with my friends," Walker said. "But Bernard was persistent. He got me to start going to museums and galleries. He got me reading and studying about art."

Walker explained that the first 3 art pieces he purchased were one work each from noted African-American artists Robert Colescott, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden. Today, he has enough valued works in his personal collection to publish his own catalog.

Perry, who played with 4 different NBA teams in his career, credits Walker with turning him on to art.  The two first began discussing the subject during a long basketball trip to Japan put together in 1996 by NBA great Charles Barkley. "I didn't know anything about art," Perry said. "But Darrel became my coach and adviser. He would tell me what catalogs and books to check out."

He noted that the idea to become a real collector was solidified when he viewed the collection of Dr. Walter Evans in Little Rock. "A light came on in my head. That's what I want my collection to look like," Perry said.

Today, Perry says he finds 3 great values in his passion. Obviously, there is the joy of collecting and displaying the work. But he also enjoys supporting contemporary African-American artists and building personal relationships with them.  "Every artist that I collect now, I know personally," Elliot said.

Walker says he too cherishes personal contact with artists. For example, he was able to meet Lawrence, recognized as one of the giants in the art world, on 2 occasions. The first time was over martinis and Lawrence, according to Walker who was buying, had "a lot of martinis." By the time of their next meeting Lawrence, who died in 2000, was living in an assisted living home. "He was talking and I just wanted to see his room. Now Lawrence was a great collector of tools. There was not one piece of art on his walls. But there was this big table full of tools from the 30s, and 40s, and 50s, and 60s," Walker said.

Walker said that talking to an artist about his or her work helps you better understand the art. "They'll break it down for you," he said.

Perry said that while a lot of people seem intimidated by art, that shouldn't be the case. "With art, there is no firm conclusion. What is art? It is everything. What you like is good art. You should not be waiting for someone else to validate your opinion," he explained.

Walker credits his art collecting for expanding all his academic interests. "My wife says I wouldn't be on-line now trying to finish my (college) degree if I had been reading like I do now when I was first at the University of Arkansas."

He added that he considers collecting art "my 24-hour job now. Take everything away from me and leave me my art and I'm fine. I plan to leave my collection to my children. They have one rule - if something should happen to my wife and me at the same time I've told them - 'don't do anything. Call Elliot first. He'll tell you what to do about the art.'"

So what advise would Walker, so used to guiding young men on the basketball court, give to anyone interested in beginning a collection? "I know art is not for everyone. Do what you want to do. Read, educate yourself, visit museums. If you like to collect art, collect it. But it is enough to just enjoy the beauty that art provides," he said.

Perry, ever the loyal follower of his art coach, agreed, adding that encountering art can only change you for the better. "It is transformative as much as it is informative," he said.

Tales, Tips, and Tidbits
The idea of 2 black athletes collecting art and talking knowledgeably and passionately about the subject certainly doesn't fit the stereotype many hold of professional basketball players. Dr. Michael Harris, a professor, curator, collector, and artist himself, moderated today's well-attended discussion in the auditorium of the East Gallery and got both Walker and Perry talking about that very subject. Dr. Harris began by jokingly noting that  if he had been a better baseball player, people "might not think I'm smart." Walker acknowledged that the image of the modern athlete is big money, expensive drugs, and fancy cars. "But every athlete is not like that," Walker said. "Many athletes have some insight. My Bentley's are up on my walls."

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Picturing the Struggle for Justice

Rosa Parks in limewood sculpture
From the days leading up to the American Revolution to today's various Occupy movements, a crucial focus of the American experience has been political, social, and economic justice.

In its exhibit The Struggle for Justice, the National Portrait Gallery employs portraits, pictures, and sculptures to portray the ongoing fight in 6 areas: They are
  • Civil Rights
  • Labor Rights
  • Women's Rights
  • American Indian Rights
  • Disabled Rights
  • Gay and Lesbian Rights
The largest item in the exhibit is a huge photo of a well-dressed black man in the 1960s carrying a sign reading "If we must die, let us die as free men, not Jim Crow slaves."

Of course, all the familiar faces - Martin Luther King, Betty Friedan, Ceasar Chavez - are on display. But lesser known figures such as Fred Karamatsu, a Japanese-American victim of America's dark  decision to intern thousands of loyal Japanese-Americans during World War II, is also pictured. When their family was finally released, the Karamatsus returned to their East Oakland, California, home to find that vandals had smashed the glass in their greenhouses and all their nursery plants had been sold off. It took years for the family to recover and Karamatsu was active in demanding justice for his people. Finally, in 1988, the U.S. Congress formally apologized for the internment and each detainee was awarded $20,000.

Another face which might not be familiar to all visitors is Larry Kramer, a gay rights activist and playwright. Kramer is probably most known for starting ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) which employed confrontational techniques used during the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City which first shone a light on the gay movement.

Several quotes are included in the ongoing exhibit, as well as 6 video shorts on the 6 different struggles.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
One of the greatest things about living in the DC area is the amazing amount of things to do and see daily. Of course, sometimes event times clash. Today was such a day. In addition to the Oscar preview and the Struggle of Justice exhibit, my college alma mater, Villanova, was playing arch-rivals Georgetown in Big East basketball at the Verizon Center. We opted for the exhibits over the game for 3 main reasons:
  1. There will always be more Villanova-Georgetown games
  2. The cheapest seats for the game were $40 each and the exhibits were free and
  3. I figured the Wildcats would lose to the Hoyas and I really didn't want to witness that. I was right. The final score was Georgetown 64, Villanova 47.

A Critic Looks at the Oscars

The Artist - A silent salute to the best picture of 2012?
As you are reading this post, the 2012 Oscar race has become old news. The winners will have been announced, the speeches will have been delivered, and the red carpet will have rolled up for yet another year.

But for many people, the real fun of the Academy Awards comes before the ceremony when film fans and critics, like the gamblers in the new HBO show Luck, try to demonstrate their movie prowess and pick the winners who will walk away with the trophies. In fact, the Oscars now rank 3rd in office pools behind NCAA basketball tourney March Madness and the NFL's Super Bowl.

Today, Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday appeared at the Newseum to discuss the year's Oscar races and maybe give some last minute tips to those who had yet to complete their pool selections. The discussion proved so popular that, in a rare move for the Newseum, a second session was added.

So, with the Oscar ceremony a little more than 24 hours away, what film did Hornaday believe would take top honors? Her choice - The Artist. "Yes it will win and yes it should win," she told the capacity crowd in the Inside Media studio. She said the silent film would win despite criticism from some quarters that "it is derivative, it's a pastiche, it's not universally loved."

Hornaday said a shared theme of this year's 9 best picture choices appeared to be a sense of nostalgia. "It's uncanny. With the exclusion of Moneyball, from a zeitgeist point of view, these films seem to be grappling with memory and a look to the past," Hornaday said. "But even that (Moneyball) is a call for something more traditional. And then you've got Billy Crystal (returning as host)."

Hornaday also revealed her own personal choices in several categories. She said she would like to see Moneyball star Brad Pitt win the best actor Oscar. "It's so easy to dismiss him as just a pretty face and a movie star," she said. "But he has taken on some really challenging roles."

Hornaday said she expected one of the closest races to be in the best actress category between Viola Davis for her role in The Help and Meryl Streep, the star of The Iron Lady. Hornaday said both were deserving. "You have these weak movies anchored by these 2 tremendous performances," she observed.

Like all passionate movie goers, Hornaday said that this year's awards also represented some snubs in who was left out of the voting. "(Directors) David Fincher and Christopher Nolan seem to be shut out of academy love," she said.

Responding to a question from the audience about how she finds time to see all the films that she needs to see to review, Hornaday humorously called her work ethic "pathetic."

"It helps to go to film festivals where you can see a lot of films," she said. "But this year, I didn't make it to all the shorts. You're always going to miss a few."

Asked about a change in this year's rules which disallows the inclusion of any song that only plays in a movie's credits from being nominated for best song, Hornaday said she understands the reasoning behind the move. "I think the academy wants the song to be an integral part of the narrative. They're trying to get at the song as an aesthetic element," she said.

Hornaday agreed with an audience member that the Oscars show does not provide as much actual entertainment value as other awards shows like the Grammies. She said the Oscars might benefit from following the lead of the British best picture show, which is edited before it is aired. "It's funnier and much more fun to watch. It's not a long, self-indulgent slog," she noted.

One audience member wanted to know where Hornaday planned to watch the Oscars. "Usually, I just stay home with my popcorn," she said. "But this year, the Post has asked me to blog about the event. So I'll be on my couch with my PJ's and popcorn, but I'll have a laptop, too."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Host John Maynard opened today's discussion with references to an article that Hornaday had written earlier this year entitled "Dear Movie Goers - Get a Grip." In that piece, Hornaday commented on movie viewers in a Connecticut art house film theater walking out on Terrance Malik's challenging best-picture-nominated film Tree of Life, which she admitted is "a very obtuse movie." She also detailed the story of an Austin woman who is suing the makers of the movie Drive because there really wasn't much driving in it and another who expressed anger that The Artist was a silent movie.
"We have Angry Birds, we have angry voters, and now we have angry movie goers," she said, noting that she plans to use that article as a springboard to a series of informal articles about the viewing experience and what should be realistic and acceptable.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Genesis Reboot: A Do-Over for the Garden of Eden

What if a well-intentioned angel grabbed the power to start our world all over again. With new light. And a new tree of knowledge. And a new Adam and and a new Eve. And new brothers Cain and Able. And no plans for an apple or a serpent. Could that idyllic perfection be maintained? Or would human flaws and frailties doom the do-over to the same result we find in the Biblical tale. And, oh yeah, what if a mischievous demon just happened to worm his way into the story? How would that affect the outcome?

This ambitious, thought-provoking scenario forms the basis for Synetic Theater's latest production, Genesis Reboot which is playing until March 4th here in Crystal City.

The playbill lists 7 verses of Genesis from The King James Bible as the play's synopsis. In actuality, the play was written by long-time theater company member Ben Cunis and his brother Peter, with much input from the 6-member cast. Cunis directs the 90-minute performance which has received a Helen Hayes recommendation.
Eve, Adam, Angel, Demon, and apple in the new Eden

In his director's note, Cunis says the play does not seek to simply retell the familiar story of Genesis.
"We wish to confront the very idea of retelling," he said. "What does it mean to revisit the past? What does it mean to re-create? What is the role of the creator once the creation exists? And what if that creation is alive?"
The temptation and torments of Eve
 
The play, which is part of Synetic's New Movements series, is somewhat of a departure for the widely-recognized physical theater company since dialog is integral to the performance. However, as is always the case with Synetic, the real power is provided by the mesmerizing merger of movement, scenery, set, costume, and music. All of the action takes place around an innovative, intriguing metallic-like tree of knowledge. Costume enhancements and the backing soundtrack with hints of garbled computer commands further emphasized the Victorian steampunk meets modern mechanistic feel of the new Eden.

So does the reboot work? Or does it suffer fatal error? Is it a brave new world of good or of evil or of something else all together. Are we left with poet William Blake's bright Songs of Innocence or a much bleaker Songs of Experience? Angel or demon? - Cunis and his talented company leave that for the viewer to decide. But, if you take in the play, you will be both entertained and challenged. And what more can you ask from mythical creation than that.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Following the performance, Cunis, musical composer Clint Herring, costume designer Kristy Leigh Hall, and all 6 cast members engaged in an enlightening question-and-answer session with the audience. Cunis said that the play was an outgrowth of a short story about Cain and Abel his brother had written. For the play, Cunis wrote the scenes with Adam and Eve, his brother the scenes with Cain and Abel, and they shared the writing on the scenes with the angel and the demon. The actors said their central task was to find the humanity in the mythical archetypes and bring that to the stage. All agreed that the effort was truly collaborative and ever-changing, even after the debut when the final scene was reworked to make it more powerful. For example, Herring credited actor Joseph Carlson, who portrayed the demon with trickery and zest, with providing the key idea for his character's music. "What I had written wasn't working. Joe brought in what he was listening to to get into his character. It was The Black Keys. Now I'm not The Black Keys, but I can write something straight forward rock and roll. And that worked," Herring said.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sticky Fingers The Jam Band Way

From the 3-note beginning riff of "Satisfaction" to their maybe-to-be 50th anniversary tour this year, the Rolling Stones have always been near, or at the top, of my rock n' roll list.

How do I like the Stones? Well, let us count the ways. I trace my  love of blues back to the early Stones albums. In all the classic rock bands I have played keyboard in since 1966, Stones' tunes have always been prominent on the song list. In college, I remember studying and partying to Get Your Yas Yas Out. At our wedding, I wore a 3-piece cream suit similar to the one Mick Jagger wore when he married Bianca. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" was played by the organist in the church, and we happened to cut the cake to "Honky Tonk Women". When our son was born in 1973, I convinced my wife we should call him Michael Keith. My cell phone ring tones have been both "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Gimme Shelter".  I have seen the Stones live more than any other act. In fact since 1st seeing the them at the Philly Spectrum in 1969, I have only missed 1 tour.  And my wife and all my bosses over the years share a conviction that my attitude comes from too much emulating the "the we're the Stones and we'll piss anywhere we want" swagger of Jagger, Richard, and the rest of the band.

Obviously, my ratings of  Stones' songs, albums, CDs, and live performances have changed over the 48 years I have been following them. These days, I vacillate between Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers as my favorite Stones' collection.

Of course, I am not alone in my admiration of the Stones. They, along with the Beatles and Bob Dylan, are among the most covered artists in the world. One of their admirers is leader of the jam band Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, premiere horn player Karl Denson. Denson, who cites Sticky Fingers as his favorite Stones' CD. Since late 2011, his band, joined by guest New Orleans guitarist Anders Osborne, has been touring the country, performing the album track by track in its entirety. 

Tonight, we headed to the intimate State Theater in nearby Falls Church to check out Denson's take on Sticky Fingers.

Osborne opened the night with a 45-minute set of loud (and I mean table and chest rattling loud) power trio blues.

Then, after a break and a 3-song warmup sequence, he joined Denson and the rest of Tiny Universe, for all 10 of the Sticky Fingers songs. The augmented band played relatively straight versions of Brown Sugar, Bitch, Wild Horses, and Can't You Hear Me Knocking. But it was on special arrangements of some of the lesser known tracks that the most magical moments occurred. You Gotta Move became both southern gospel soul and New Orleans strut. Osborne's best guitar moments came on an extended ride in Sway and alternating country-picked guitar solos with the Universe's regular guitarist on Dead Flowers. The best jam of the night came on a lengthy, ethereal full-band jam at the end of the eerie, haunting Sister Morphine.


Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
 For those of you not completely familiar with Sticky Fingers, here is the complete track listing:
  1. Brown Sugar
  2. Sway
  3. Wild Horses
  4. Can't You Hear Me Knocking
  5. You Gotta Move
  6. Bitch
  7. I Got the Blues
  8. Sister Morphine
  9. Dead Flowers
  10. Moonlight Mile

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Struggle for Black Freedom

When it comes to studying the battle for civil rights and Black freedom in America, most people focus on the the protests of the 1960s and the icons of that movement such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks.

But there is a danger is such a limited approach, cautions Oxford University history professor and author Stephen Tuck. First, Tuck says, there have been protest movements in every decade of the American experience and they are still continuing today.  Secondly, many lesser-known figures have played just as large, or in some cases, maybe even a larger role in the freedom story than their better known counterparts, he adds.

"The struggle for racial equality is a very long struggle that is still going on today," Tuck said, appearing at The National Portrait Gallery tonight to discuss his latest book on the subject. "I tried to include the stories of everyday people, as well as the good and the great and the famous and the famously bad"

"I wanted to interweave these everyday stories into the better-known narrative of history," Tuck explained. "These people affected the powers that be as much as they were affected by them. You could say local life is affected by the larger issues, but the larger issues are also affected by local life."

In researching his book We Ain't What We Ought to Be: The Black Freedom Struggle from Emancipation to Obama, Tuck said he was struck by the discovery that over the decades the desire to make things better didn't change, but the ability to protest did. For example, the advent of television in the 1960s did much to bring the plight of black Americans to the forefront, just as today the internet and other social media allow the disenfranchised to attract a much larger audience than ever before.

"There has definitely been a global impact in your civil rights movement," Tuck said, noting that the movement is the 3rd largest dissertation topic in his graduate history department at Oxford. "For a lot of our students, I think they wonder would they have sat in the front of the bus and not have thought about (those) in back"

Tuck said he believes the fascination with the American experience stems from a basic desire for freedom everywhere. However, sometimes American techniques have to be altered to fit different cultures.

For example, the sit-ins, so instrumental in helping blacks in the south end Jim Crow, fizzled in England. "In England, there are lots of problems, but our institutions aren't segregated," Tuck said. "When young people tried to get thrown out of pubs, they were allowed to drink in 10 straight pubs. They did get thrown out of the 11th, but that was probably because they had been drinking beer in 10 other pubs." 

When he began promoting his book, the 1st question Tuck was asked was invariably some variation of "how come this book by a white Brit?" The author said at first he was disturbed by that line of questioning, but came to realize that it was valid.

"The real issue is power, who has it and who doesn't," Tuck said, citing that as one of his aims in writing this particular book. "Also, I wanted to go beyond the headline heroes and show those everyday people.  People on all sides of the spectrum use and abuse King for their own purposes. Remembering wrongly can be a form of forgetting and the fight for freedom is something that shouldn't be forgotten."

Tuck was asked what his prognosis is for the future state of race in America. Beginning by pointing  out that historians are much more comfortable discussing the past than they are predicting the future, he said that while problems persist, progress has been made.

"They're not showing Birth of the Nation here tonight, they're showcasing the Black List (a photo exhibit highlighting 50 prominent black Americans). And that's a good thing," Tuck said, noting that he had viewed the powerful exhibit just prior to his talk.

He pointed to the old's slave's prayer he borrowed for the title of his book as an encapsulation of his thoughts on the race question. That prayer, often quoted by black protest leaders says:
We ain't what we ought to be,
We ain't what we want to be,
But thank God Almighty, we ain't what we used to be."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Tuck is teaching this year as a guest lecturer at Harvard University and brought his family, including his 2 young daughters, with him to Boston, so they could experience America. This week, they were in Washington, and both daughters sat sprawled on the book store floor as Tuck delivered his talk last night. It was clear that the Tucks are a close family and the idea of family gave the youthful visiting professor 2 of his funnier exchanges. He said that although he had written academic books before, this was his 1st supposed popular creation. "Popular book? Ask my family. Lord knows none of them have read it." Tuck also said that when he delivers talks about King and Rosa Parks to students in England, his older daughter plays the role of Ms. Parks. Tuck said his daughter performance in protesting is so good "it gives me an inkling of what her teenage years are going to be like."


Monday, February 6, 2012

Slavery: The Stain on Jefferson?

It is one of the great enigmas in American history - how can Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Constitution and the creator of that greatest of American phrases ''all men are created equal" be the same person who held more than 700 slaves in his lifetime?

In an attempt to explore that troubling paradox, Annette Gordon-Reed, a Harvard law and history professor and the winner of both the Pulitzer and National Book prizes for her The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family was joined by National Public Radio host Michel Martin tonight at  the Smithsonian for a discussion of Jefferson and the Hemingses, as well the history of colonial-era slavery and the implications that institution still has for Americans today.

In response to a direct question of how could he hold slaves from Martin, Gordon-Reed said the answer is centered in the predominant culture of Virginia at the time. "That was the society he was born into," she explained, noting that Jefferson said one of his earliest memories was being handed up to a slave for a trip and his last action was asking a slave to prop his head up on a pillow. "So his earliest memory and his last sight was of an enslaved person."

Gordon-Reed stated that while the times may help explain Jefferson's actions, it did not exonerate him from moral responsibilities. "He was somewhat unusual in saying (in his writings) that slavery was wrong, but the problem here is that someone is saying that this is wrong, but never extricating himself from it,"  Gordon-Reed said.

Of course, Jefferson was not the only American president to personally have to deal with the question of slavery in a supposedly free country. Twelve of America's first 18 presidents held slaves. Gordon-Reed said economic conditions were at the root of slavery's continuation until the Civil War during which President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

"There was a lot of money is slaves," she said. "It became a really big business. It was a pervasive part of the economy and you just don't walk away from something like that. There was a shift (in the south) from slavery being a  necessary evil to it being a positive good."

Sex also clouds the Jefferson/slavery issue. After his wife died, he remained a widower, but apparently engaged in a long-time, intimate personal relationship with his slave Sally Hemingses who fathered children by her master, a fact supported by family DNA tests in the 1990s.

"The idea of sex between equals is a very modern idea," Gordon-Reed said. "Jefferson believed in a very hierarchical relationship. I don't believe he thought blacks or women were equal to him. Men were supposed to order women around and women were supposed to be under the control of men."

Gordon-Reed says slavery definitely played a large role in shaping America's attitude toward race.  As both a historian and an African-American, she takes umbrage at attempts to dismiss or downplay American slavery. "Some people say 'get over it.' You might as well say get over the Constitution. It's too intertwined with America. There is no way to get over it unless you forget all of American history," she concluded.

Tales, Tips, and Tidbits
Tonight's discussion, officially entitled Monticello, Slavery, and the Hemingses, was sponsored by the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, but was held at the Baird Auditorium in the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. The reason for the staging was simple - the new African American museum will not open on the Mall until 2015. However, as host Heather Taylor pointed out with talks such as this and the current exhibit on slave families at Monticello at the Museum of American History, "the museum is open even before we have a building."

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Black List: From Bad to Good

On a late February morning in 2005, photographer Timothy Greenfeld-Sanders was having breakfast with Pulitzer and Noble Prize winning author Toni Morrison. Morrison suggested that they should consider doing a portrait book on the black female singers she had auditioned for the opera she was preparing.

Morrison's comments prompted Greenfield-Sanders to think about all the extremely talented, important black  Americans he had photographed over the years including such luminaries as Morrison and Colin Powell.

Greenfield-Sanders contacted his friend film critic Elvis Mitchell to talk about the idea of a broad-based documentary film,  photography, and book project centered around such luminaries. The pair began jotting names down on napkins and by dessert they had 175 deserving subjects. 

Mitchell even had the perfect name for the project. "We should call it the Black List. We need to make it a good thing to be on the black list," he said.

And so, eventually reduced to 50 Black Americans, the Black List became a reality. Both the giant portraits and the film are currently on exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. In addition to Morrison and Powell, the show includes dignitaries from the worlds of entertainment, the arts, sports, business, and politics..

Some of those portrayed are well-known such as Chris Rock, Sean Coombs, Whoopi Goldberg, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Serena Williams. Others, mostly from the world of business, such as Suzanne de Ponse or Steve Stoute aren't household names.  De Ponse began her career as an out-spoken music booker for a New York City Club. In the mid 1960s, she was having trouble booking acts from Motown. Finally, she was able, through a connection with one of the Supremes, to reach Motown head Barry Gordy. Gordy was so taken with de Ponse's abilities that he offered her a job with Motown, who was moving its corporate offices from Detroit to Los Angeles. While on the West Coast, dePonse heard a group of 5 singing brothers she thought Motown had to sign. Despite reservations, Gordy, at de Ponse's insistence, signed the group - The Jackson 5 - and thus was born the career of one Michael Jackson. Stoute also began his career in the music industry. However, he was able to parlay his success there into creating the leading black advertising agency in the county. And while Shuate's name may not be well known, a 5-note jingle he created certainly is as he is the originator of the "I'm Loving It" commercials for McDonald's.

Today, curator Ann Shumard conducted a tour of the exhibit, pausing before several of the portraits to explain in detail how the project came to be and its importance to the art world.

"This is really a portrait of America at a moment in time from 2005 to 2009," Shumard said. "I like that it is not just all people that we know, but also people that we should know about."

For his part, Greenfield-Sanders realizes that with so many deserving subjects and only 50 pictured, there would be some controversy over omissions.

"Thousands of people belong in The Black List Project," he writes in the exhibit program. "We wanted to present a wide range of accomplishment and an equal number of men and women. In the end, we squeezed 50 highly accomplished Americans into three films. Yes 'so and so' belongs in here. We agree!"

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Being Black History Month, February makes an ideal time to visit The Black List. However, if you can't make it then, the exhibit will be on display until April 22.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes at work
In a fitting start to Black History Month, 2 of America's leading black female poets came together at the Library of Congress today to read some of their favorite Langston Hughes poems and discuss the influence that Hughes, who would have turned 110, has had on their own poetry.

Current Washington DC poet laureate Dolores Kendrick was joined by Rutgers University Professor Evie Shockley at the literary birthday celebration honoring Hughes, a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance and one of this country's truly great writers..

As would be expected, many of the readings came from those considered some of Hughes' greatest works such as:
  • "Harlem" which contains the line that sparked the Lorraine Hansberry play A Raisin in the Sun
  • "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"
  • "Let America Be America Again"
  • "Theme for English B"
But both poets also chose lesser known works that had an impact on them and their work. For her part, Kendrick read Hughes' "Merry-Go-Round ... Colored Child at a Carnival" which states:
Where is the Jim Crow section 
On this merry-go-round, 
Mister, cause I want to ride?
Down South where I come from
White and colored
Can't sit side by side.
Down South on the train
There's a Jim Crow car.
On the bus we're put in the back - 
But there ain't no back
To a merry-go-round!
Where's the horse
For a kid that's black?

Shockley selected an early 1920s short poem entitled "Johannesburg Mines" which states:
In the Johannesburg mines
There are 240,000
Native Africans working.
What kind of poem
Would you
Make of that?
240.000 natives
Working in the
Johannesburg mines.

Shockley, who says of Hughes that she has "taken him in certain ways as a a model for my poetry,"
explained that "Johannesburg Mines" prompted her to write her poem "Statistical Haiku - How Do They Discount Us? Let Me Count the Ways," which in simple, Hughes-like language powerfully lists figures that dramatically capture the still existent inequalities between white and black Americans.

While Hughes' themes are deep and profound, some people might tend to dismiss him because of his language choices, an action that Shockley says is a mistake. "He used everyday words so it is sometimes easy for the casual reader to dismiss him," Shockley said. "But he foreshadows the Black rebellion and speaks of the importance of the American Dream for all people."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Langston Hughes is my favorite poet. I think everyone should be familiar with his work. You can check out 92 of his poems here at Poem Hunter.com.

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