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justice can’t breathe

12/04/14 1 Comment

bramhall-world-justice-system-eric-garner

 

timely cartoon by bill bramhall responding to the recent eric garner decision (via the ny daily news). if you agree with the message, what would you like to see done to resuscitate the legal system?

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“I pray that God will bless you in everything that you do. I pray that you will grow intellectually, so that you can understand the problems of the world and where you fit into in that world picture. And I pray that all of the fear that has ever been in your heart will be taken out.”

– malcolm x.  see him deliver the quote below to get more context:

a prayer for the new year

01/01/14

the never-ending story

10/02/13

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written by a.o. scott for nytimes:

The “conversation about race” that public figures periodically claim to desire, the one that is always either about to happen or is being prevented from happening, has been going on, at full volume, at least since the day in 1619 when the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown. It has proceeded through every known form of discourse — passionate speeches, awkward silences, angry rants, sheepish whispers, jokes, insults, stories and songs — and just as often through double-talk, indirection and not-so-secret codes.

What are we really talking about, though? The habit of referring to it as “race” reflects a tendency toward euphemism and abstraction. Race is a biologically dubious concept and a notoriously slippery social reality, a matter of group identity and personal feelings, mutual misunderstandings and the dialectic of giving and taking offense. If that is what we are talking about, then we are not talking about the historical facts that continue to weigh heavily on present circumstances, which is to say about slavery, segregation and white supremacy.

“12 Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen, with, from left, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Francois Duhamel/Fox Searchlight Pictures.

“12 Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen, with, from left, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Francois Duhamel/Fox Searchlight Pictures.

But of course we are still talking about all that, with what seems like renewed concentration and vigor. Nor, in a year that is the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address and the semicentennial of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, are we simply looking back at bygone tragedies from the standpoint of a tranquil present. The two big racially themed movies of the year, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” are notable for the urgency and intensity with which they unpack stories of the past, as if delivering their news of brutal bondage and stubborn discrimination for the first time.

And one of the strange effects of this country’s anxious, confused, hopeful and delusional relationship to its history of racism is that such narratives often do feel like news, or like efforts to overcome willful amnesia. The astonishing experiences of Solomon Northup, Mr. McQueen’s protagonist, a free man from Saratoga, N.Y., who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South in 1841, are not being presented to the American public for the first time. Northup’s memoir was an antebellum best seller, nearly as widely circulated in abolitionist circles as “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” A screen adaptation, directed by Gordon Parks and starring Avery Brooks in the title role (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in Mr. McQueen’s version), was broadcast on PBS in 1984.

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“12 Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen, with, from left, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Warner Brothers Pictures

Some of the film’s representations of cruelty — whippings, hangings, the sexual abuse of a young female slave named Patsey by her sadistic master — will also stir the memories of those Americans (like me) for whom “Roots” was a formative cultural experience. In 1977, when the mini-series, based on Alex Haley’s book, was first broadcast, it was heralded not only for its authenticity and comprehensiveness, but also for its newness. This was the first time such a story had been told in such breadth and detail, and with so much assembled talent. It continued, two years later, with “Roots: The Next Generations,” which was in some ways more groundbreaking for bringing attention to the often neglected decades of struggle and frustration that fell between the end of the Civil War and the birth of the modern civil rights movements.

Such stories, of course, do not stay told. The moral, economic and human realities of slavery — to keep the narrative there for a moment — have a way of getting buried and swept aside. For a long time this was because, at the movies as in the political and scholarly mainstream, slavery was something of a dead letter, an inconvenient detail in a narrative of national triumph, a sin that had been expiated in the blood of Northern and Southern whites.

D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” filmed in 1914. Kino Lorber Inc.

D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” filmed in 1914. Kino Lorber Inc.

D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” may look now like a work of reactionary racism, but it is very much an artifact of the Progressive Era, embraced by President Woodrow Wilson and consistent with what were then understood to be liberal ideas about destiny and character of the American republic. In Griffith’s film (adapted from “The Clansman,” a best-selling novel by Thomas Dixon), the great crime of slavery had been its divisive and corrupting effect on whites. After Reconstruction, the nation was re-founded on the twin pillars of abolition and white supremacy.

Which is also to say on the basis of terror and disenfranchisement. But that side of the story was pushed to the margins, as was the harshness of slavery itself, which was obscured by a fog of sentimentality about the heritage and culture of the Old South. This was the iconography of “Gone With the Wind,” and while the pageantry of that blockbuster seems dated (to say nothing of its sexual politics), the old times it evokes are not forgotten, as Paula Deen might tell you.

The appeal of “Roots” lay partly in its status as a long-delayed, always-marginalized counternarrative, an answer to the mythology and romance that had shrouded popular representations of the American past. Much doubt has been cast on the accuracy of Haley’s book (which was marketed as a novel based on family sources), but the corrective power of the mini-series lay in its ability to reimagine the generation-by-generation sweep of American history from a perspective that had not before been synthesized on screens or public airwaves.

In retrospect, “Roots” — which arrived on television a dozen years after the legislative high-water mark of the civil rights movement, in the more immediate wake of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy and the first “Rocky” movie — may have succeeded so widely with white and black audiences because it simultaneously opened and closed the book on America’s racial history. There were a lot more American families like the one in the mini-series, but also with their own distinctive sagas of captivity, freedom, migration and resilience.

Those intimate stories had never been shared in such a wide and public fashion and the reception of “Roots” had a catalyzing effect on the imagination of many black writers. Until then, slavery had been something of a taboo in African-American literature, whose thematic center of gravity was in the urban North and whose theme was the black experience of modernity. But “Roots,” clumsy and corny as parts of it look now, helped beget radical and ambitious novels like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage” and Edward P. Jones’s “Known World.” They, along with artists like Kara Walker, took slavery as an imaginative challenge and an artistic opportunity.

But there was also a sense, after “Roots” and after “Beloved” claimed its place in the canon, that it had all been said. The white audience, moved by duty, curiosity and sincere empathy, could now move on. The horrors of the past, especially when encountered on television, cast a soothing and forgiving light on the present, where some of us could be comforted, absolved, affirmed in our virtue through the simple fact of watching.

But after such forgiveness, what knowledge? Post-“Roots,” a Hollywood consensus took shape that replaced the old magnolia-scented mythology with a new one, almost as focused on the moral condition of white people, but with a different political inflection. The existence of racism is acknowledged, and its poisonous effects are noted. But it is also localized, in time and geography, in such a way as to avoid implicating the present-day white audience. The racists are clearly marked as villains — uncouth, ugly, ignorant in ways that no one watching would identify with — and they are opposed by a coalition of brave whites and noble, stoical blacks. At the end, the coach and his players, the preacher and his flock, the maid and her enlightened employer shame the bigots and vindicate the audience.

“Django Unchained” (2012), directed by Quentin Tarantino, with Christoph Waltz, left, and Jamie Foxx. Andrew Cooper/Weinstein Company

“Django Unchained” (2012), directed by Quentin Tarantino, with Christoph Waltz, left, and Jamie Foxx. Andrew Cooper/Weinstein Company

There are variations on this theme, of course, but it is remarkably durable. It links, for example, “The Help,” Tate Taylor’s mild and decorous look at master-servant relations in Mississippi in the early 1960s (based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel), with “Django Unchained,”Quentin Tarantino’s violent and profane (if no less fantastical) examination of the same subject in the same state a little more than a century before. In both cases, a white character (Emma Stone’s writer; Christoph Waltz’s itinerant dentist) helps a black protégé acquire the ability to humiliate the oppressors. The weapon might be a book, a pie or a hail of gunfire, but the effect is the same. Justice is served and everyone cheers.

Some of us, perhaps including the white directors, are cheering for ourselves. Look how bad it used to be. Thank goodness — our own goodness — that it isn’t anymore. And of course it is never just the way it used to be. The abolition of slavery and the dismantling of Jim Crow really happened, against considerable odds and thanks to blacks and whites who took risks that later generations can only regard with awe and patriotic pride. The challenge is how to complete a particular story and leave the audience with the understanding that the narrative is not finished, that the past, to modify everyone’s favorite Faulkner quote, is not quite past.

Recent work by academic historians has emphasized the extent to which the exploitation and oppression of African-Americans — the denial of their freedom as workers and their rights as citizens — is embedded in the national DNA. Walter Johnson’s “River of Dark Dreams” shows how the Cotton Kingdom of the 19th-century Deep South, far from being a backward outpost of feudalism, was a dynamic engine of capitalist expansion built on enslaved labor. “Fear Itself,” Ira Katznelson’s revisionist study of the New Deal, shows how the great edifice of American social democracy, passed with the support of Southern Democrats, rested on and upheld the color line. And while neither white supremacy nor slavery has legal standing or legitimate defenders in America today, it would be hard to argue that their legacy has been expunged, or to confine their scope to the benighted actions of a few individuals.

Racism is part of the deep structure of American life, which is to say a persistently uncomfortable and also a persistently interesting subject, a spur to artistic creation as well as historical research. “The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave” may not be telling entirely new stories, but they are trying to tell them in new ways. Mr. McQueen infuses what looks like a conventional costume drama with the unflinching rigor that has characterized his previous films, “Hunger” and “Shame.” Mr. Daniels, the director of “Precious” and “The Paperboy,” blends melodrama, naturalism and brazen theatricality into a pageant that knowingly flirts with self-parody even as it packs a devastating emotional punch.

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” with Forest Whitaker. Anne Marie Fox/Weinstein Company

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” with Forest Whitaker. Anne Marie Fox/Weinstein Company

Some of that impact comes at the end of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which pointedly asks the audience to consider what has and has not changed. It is not much of a spoiler to say that Barack Obama is elected president, an event that is especially sweet and piquant for the title character, a black man who worked in the White House through the administrations of every president from Eisenhower to Reagan.

And it is certainly not a spoiler to note that in real life, Mr. Obama’s election and re-election have not ushered in an era of colorblind consensus. On the contrary, the fervor of the opposition to the president, and its concentration in the states of the former Confederacy, have at least something to do with the color of his skin. But Mr. Obama’s victories, and the resistance to them, have opened a new and complicated chapter in a continuing story, which means also a new interest in how the past looks from this particular present.

This chapter is being portrayed on screen by filmmakers like Mr. Daniels and Mr. McQueen, and written in journalism, fiction and memoirs by a rising generation of African-American writers that includes Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kiese Laymon and Jesmyn Ward. Ms. Ward’s new book, “Men We Reaped,” is a Southern coming-of-age story that evokes a long tradition of black autobiography going back to slave narratives and (in its title) the words of Harriet Tubman and an old chain-gang work song. Ms. Ward’s stories of black men in tragic circumstances seem both ancient and contemporary, echoing back to the lives of those less lucky than Solomon Northup and connecting with the fates of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant III, whose 2009 killing by transit police in Oakland is the subject of the recent film “Fruitvale Station.”

What links these episodes is the troubling reality that now — even now, we might say, with a black president and a culture more accepting of its own diversity than ever before — the full citizenship, which is to say the full acknowledged humanity, of African-Americans remains in question. The only way to answer that question is to keep talking, and to listen harder.

related: how to fight racial bias when it’s silent and subtle | atomic lemon drops #7: a confusing two minutes and four seconds | “segregation series” by gordon parks

ella & marilyn

09/15/13

tumblr_mml5zaMyMe1rnpyyeo1_1280 a great pic of two icons in their respective fields, jazz songstress ella fitzgerald & actress marilyn monroe.  here’s some background on their special bond, first via pieces of me:

I never get tired of this photo.

Ella Fitzgerald was not allowed to play at Mocambo because of her race. Then, one of Ella’s biggest fans made a telephone call that quite possibly changed the path of her career for good. Here, Ella tells the story of how Marilyn Monroe changed her life:

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt… she personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

npr affiliate kplu also points out that ella influenced marilyn’s career as well:

[Y]ears prior to the Mocambo phone call, Monroe was studying the recordings of Fitzgerald. In fact, it was rumored that a vocal coach of Monroe instructed her to purchase Fitzgerald’s recordings of Gershwin music, and listen to it 100 times in a row.

Continued study of Fitzgerald actually turned Monroe into a relatively solid singer for about a decade.

related: real recognize real | bonnie greer talks about her play “marilyn and ella”

when the beautiful game turns ugly

06/06/13

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wright thompson tackles racism in italian soccer in this month’s espn mag:

I’ve given up hope of ever fully understanding the fractured things I saw while chasing the Serie A soccer circus around Italy. Let me be honest. I got sent to write about racism, which I found in staggering amounts. But Italy isn’t like America, and racism there is tied into a thousand years of feuds, and hatred of anyone different, even if they’re from only a few miles away, and fascism, and the recent wave of immigration. That’s all in here, but it’s unfair to hide my predicament, which became clear after only a day or two. I’d fallen into a parallel universe of contradictions.

thompson travels everywhere from football terraces to refugee camps, trying to unpack things like a fan who was “a great dude…until he started quoting hitler and dropping n-bombs” or why home-born italians like soccer star mario balotelli are subject to xenophobic vitriol in their own country.  he finds that the issues extend to all levels of football and in some cases, start with deep-rooted problems that stretch beyond the pitch.  follow his journey in the compelling article below and let know what you think.

When The Beautiful Game Turns Ugly – Wright Thompson – ESPN

lena horne & the tuskegee airmen

05/27/13 2 Comments

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in honor of memorial day, here’s a pic of actress lena horne with the tuskegee airmen during ww2.  via vintageblackglamour:

Lena Horne with a group of Tuskegee Airmen on January 1, 1945. There are countless photos of Ms. Horne visiting Tuskegee Airmen and other military personnel to show her support for their service. She also showed her support for them by refusing to perform for segregated military audiences during World War II. Photo: Associated Press.

4 lyrics that capture the problem with “accidental racist”

04/09/13

unofficial cover art for the song

unofficial cover art for the song

country music star brad paisley and rap icon james smith aka ll cool j created a buzz with their recent collabo “accidental racist” (listen to it below & check out the lyrics here):

the thing is most of the buzz that i’ve heard hasn’t been positive.  some people view the song as a source of unintentional comedy; for others, it’s a source of shame and anger.  while i think the two artists had good intentions in making the song, here are 4 lyrics from the track that symbolize where they went wrong:

“lookin’ like i got a lot to learn but from my point of view/i’m just a white man comin’ to you from the southland” (brad paisley): paisley starts out fine in acknowledging that he has a lot to learn (we all do on some issues).  his reasoning though for what he doesn’t know is problematic.  the “i’m just a white man” line echoes the “i’m just a simple man” trope found throughout country music.  however, paisley’s use of it here to explain his “accidentally racist” behavior doesn’t fly.  it’s 2013 where many people, especially those with paisley’s financial means, have a wealth of knowledge literally at their fingertips if they want it. whatever his intentions were for wearing a dixie flag t-shirt in the song, even a so-called simple, white man from the south (and paisley’s west virginia barely qualifies) should be fully aware that the racist history associated with the flag (a history that even paisley acknowledges in the song that we can’t just rewrite) will make the shirt offensive to many people.  choosing not to avail yourself of such knowledge or even worse, knowing better and not acting on it, isn’t an accident.  it’s a failure (in this case, potentially a harmful one).

“i try to put myself in your shoes and that’s a good place to begin/but it ain’t like i can walk a mile in someone else’s skin” (paisley):  again, paisley starts off right by trying to put himself in another person’s shoes.  however again, he downplays his capacity for change in the matter with the rest of the line.  of course, you can’t literally walk in another person’s skin (unless you’re eddie murphy).  still, pointing that out here makes it seem like the understanding he’s seeking is beyond his scope when in reality, it’s not.  a good part about empathy is that it can allow us to feel/understand another person’s struggles without fully experiencing it for ourselves (if we open ourselves up to do so).

“dear mr. white man” (ll cool j): the start of uncle l’s verse might seem innocuous to some, but for me, it hearkens back to the forced one-way flow of respect given by blacks to whites dating back to american slavery times.  sadly, this reading of the lyric actually fits the humble, subservient tone mr. smith takes with the rest of his verse (it’s ironic that he later equates himself to quentin tarantino’s django when throughout the song he sounds more like stephen, sam jackson’s character in the movie).  smith’s flaccid approach is surprising coming from the same man who did this.  worse though, he seems to place himself on unequal footing when in this particular dialogue, a widespread establishment of equal standing is needed to address our nation’s racial problems.

“if you don’t judge my gold chains/i’ll forget the iron chains” (ll cool j): here, smith tries to make a deal with his white counterparts where if they stop judging him based on stereotypes, he’ll forget their ancestral sin of slavery.  while the rhyme might make it seem like an equal exchange, it’s far from it.  the most troubling part about it is the premature concession to just forget the iron chains and many other atrocities associated with america’s enslavement of black people.  the purpose of remembering slavery isn’t to hold a grudge.  history, regardless of the pain/embarrassment it may stir up, provides us with proper context for how we became the individuals/society we are today.  such context is important when discussing race and the socio-economic issues linked to it (without it, we might confuse the progress in things like affirmative action as a final solution to an ultimately more complex problem).

in the end, the biggest mistake made by the “accidental racist” singer & the “accidental uncle tom” rapper isn’t as much about racism as it is about ignorance.  paisley tries to use an “aww, shucks” attitude to avoid the responsibility demanded of him by his access to knowledge but it doesn’t work. for ll, his overly accommodating approach + premature “let bygones be bygones” attitude undermines the time/effort needed to truly heal 200+ years’ worth of wounds.

there’s a great quote from malcolm x that comes to mind: “don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think or as fast. there was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”  i don’t think anyone should simply condemn paisley or smith for their missteps (especially when they might be attempting something that other mainstream artists don’t on the regular).  nevertheless, i do hope that the different reactions to the track will help them know better and do better in the future.

atomic lemon drops #7: a confusing two minutes and four seconds

02/24/13 3 Comments

i performed this latest atomic lemon drop today at a local black history month event.  read the poem a few times & check out the supplemental info that follows.  if you have any questions/comments/criticisms about the piece, share in the comment section & i’ll respond:

Joe Louis in the Ring

A Confusing Two Minutes and Four Seconds
(Dedicated to Joe Louis, 1938)

This time,
it’s more than
the colored boys
who wanna be me,
or the colorful girls
who wanna be with me.
It’s sixty thousand in
the house that Ruth built,
with millions more in
the house that God built,
all focused on the son
of a cotton picker.
Cause this time,
I fight for your democracy.
I fight for your rights.
I fight for your America.
So I take in your
hollow hugs,
Go get ‘em, Joes,
and just go to war.
When the bell sounds,
bombs start flying,
but they’re only my fists,
exploding with such fury
that a woman screams,
but it’s only a man,
a perfect man,
whose imperfections
are exposed by
right hooks and left jabs
in only two minutes and four seconds.
For some,
those two minutes
were only fifteen,
forgetting time as
they hopped back
over the colored fence.
For others,
those two minutes
were a lifetime,
forgetting race as
they hopped over
to common sense.

click here for video of me performing the poem.

bonus: below, you can watch the fight that inspired this poem, louis v. schmeling II.  also, make sure you check out wiki and npr for more background on this important moment in history:

“There are some events and some broadcasts, some sporting activities, that reach out to millions of people and touch them in a very deep way and express a lot of their deepest cultural, racial, political hopes and aspirations,” historian Lewis Erenberg says. “And this is one of those events.”

previously in atomic lemon drops: barbershop | grim reaper | dear leader | weekend in jamaica | rehearsal for “when doors slam shut” | a poem called lauryn

related: jackie robinson, in his own words | muhammad ali goes to mars: the lost interview

© Carlton Williams Jr. and atolemdro, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this poem without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carlton Williams Jr. and atolemdro with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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