Tag Archives: the necessity to speak

prism

Kara Walker silhouette from " Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power"

Kara Walker silhouette from “Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power”

 

prism (ˈprizəm/) n. piece of glass or other transparent material cut with precise angles and plane faces. Prisms are useful for analyzing and refracting light (see refraction). A triangular prism can separate white light into its constituent colors by refracting each different wavelength of light by a different amount. The longer wavelengths (those at the red end of the spectrum) are bent the least, the shorter ones (those at the violet end) the most. The result is the spectrum of visible light, or the rainbow. Prisms are used in certain kinds of spectroscopy and in various optical systems.

 

 

Netflix is proposing I watch White Christmas. White Christmas is one of the many classics I watched with my grandma growing up. We would often screen films on American Movie Classics in the living room, after she popped popcorn on the stove. I got to know Rita Hayworth and Audrey Hepburn and Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire while curled up on that old brocade couch. I found the stylized nature of these films comforting, conjuring nostalgia for a time I never experienced first hand. The fancy dresses with foundation garments underneath, the finger-waved hair, the three-piece suits and wingtips and fedoras, the inexplicable breaking into song or dance at any moment. These glimpses gave me access to my young grandmother. The one with bright red hair and sweet collared dresses, who was a secretary after attending Washington University in her hometown of St. Louis.

 

White Christmas, released in 1954, features Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen and is mostly a remake, in Technicolor, of a film made less than a decade earlier: Holiday Inn. Filmed in black and white, Holiday Inn was the movie that first introduced the world to the now-standard holiday song “White Christmas.” In the middle of the film, a cardigan-sweatered Crosby croons “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” and pauses in playing the piano to reach over and ring the bells that are hung on the Christmas tree with a silver spoon.

 

The 1942 film revolves around two old buddies, Jim and Ted, played by Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire respectively, who used to have a musical act in New York City, who are intensely competitive, and who fall in love with the same woman, an aspiring performer Linda Mason, played by Marjorie Reynolds. Jim starts an inn in Connecticut—the Holiday Inn—that features monthly performances based on each month’s signature holiday. He hires his love interest Linda to perform alongside him. There is singing. There is dancing. There is a friendship strained by the friends’ mutual love of and competition for one woman. There is misogyny and stereotypical gender roles. And then there is the issue of blackness and whiteness.

 

I vaguely remembered the premise but mostly the feeling of sitting with my grandma in her living room when, a few years ago, I rented the DVD from a local video store. I remembered the costumes and the dancing, the coy smiles of this old school romance. I recalled the stunning solo number by Fred Astaire, who tap danced across the floor while throwing down firecrackers for the Holiday Inn’s celebration of the Fourth of July.

 

What I didn’t remember was the performance from Lincoln’s Birthday, which is astonishingly picked as the holiday for February instead of Valentine’s Day. Necessitated by the plot that requires Jim to disguise his beloved so as to ward off advances from his friend and competition, he makes a quick change and the number for Lincoln’s Birthday suddenly becomes a minstrel show. Bing as Jim emerges in blackface with a top hat, beard, and cane. Linda’s face is painted black as well and her hair spikes out into a myriad of ribboned blonde braids.

 

My jaw dropped. I had no memory of this scene at all. And I wondered: Was it because I was too young and had no context for what was happening? Did my grandma see the issues of the scene and choose not to tell me? Did she not see the scene as problematic enough? Did she avoid talking about it with me because of its problematic nature?

 

The song “Abraham” unfolds with Bing Crosby singing against a full orchestra also in blackface. The blackfaced banjo player sits in the far back on the ground. The waiters and waitresses are in blackface as well, the women adorned with kerchiefs and petticoated polka-dotted skirts.

 

The film also features a black housekeeper character named Mamie and her two young children, a girl and a boy, who also participate in the song. After Bing’s first verse, the camera cuts to Mamie. Holding her children on her lap, Mamie sings the question: “When black folks lived in slavery, who was it set the darkie free?” Her daughter sings a reply: “Abraham.”

 

Holiday Inn Bing Holiday Inn Marjorie Holiday Inn Bing and Marjorie

 

Research reveals that some broadcasts began to show an edited version of the film in the 1980s. (How that worked I’m not exactly sure since this section of the movie also reveals crucial plot points. For example, that touching moment when Jim proposes marriage to Linda while painting her face black for the minstrel show.) Turner Movie Classics didn’t edit the film because they believe in broadcasting films as originally cut. And until more recently, American Movie Classics also ran the film in its original form.

 

This all makes me think I saw the original uncut version.

 

As offensive as this scene is, as horrible as it is to think that someone deemed it acceptable to create this musical performance and then use it as a lynchpin in the film, someone made that choice. Many someones. And to revise a cultural artifact that reveals its time, who was in power and what they thought, is dangerous. Revising texts in this way is to pretend that popular culture was not feeding into racist attitudes and actions.

 

But even more dangerous, I think, is the outrage so many white Americans often experience about the past that can nullify or desensitize us to the reality of the present. And our present involves a system that privileges and protects white people over and over again solely because of the color of our skin. Our present praises and makes permissible a system that results in the demoralization, degradation, dejection, and death of black and brown people.

 

Like so many Americans, I have felt devastated and angry this last week about the lack of an indictment of Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. When I returned home the night of the verdict, my desire to hit something was so strong that I ended up punching my mattress for a while. I felt a sickening feeling in my stomach, a combination of fury and grief, a few days later when watching the video that shows a Cleveland cop shooting and killing 12-year-old black child Tamir Rice a mere second after the officer got out of his car. There is no sound in the video so all you see is a small body standing upright and then crumpling to the ground. Devastating. Not to mention the local news story that led by attacking the character of the victim’s father instead of the confounding fact of an officer killing a child holding a toy gun. These deaths are tragedy accumulated because Michael Brown and Tamir Rice (and Trayvon Martin and and and) are not exceptions but part of a long line of African-American people killed in this country because of the color of their skin and because our country refuses to look at the reality and pervasiveness of the racism that we are founded in and on.

 

We would like to think we are so much farther along than Holiday Inn. But that’s just not true.

 

Only two weeks ago, Jacqueline Woodson was presented with the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for her book Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir about growing up in South Carolina in the 60s and 70s, dealing with Jim Crow and the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement. And at this pinnacle moment of her career and artistic work, Dan Handler, the author of the popular Lemony Snicket series, made the joke that he “only just found out she was allergic to watermelon.” I can’t imagine what it would feel like, on one of the most important nights of your life, to have your accomplishments smeared with insults and reminders of the very injustices your work strives to illuminate.

 

Woodson responded in a New York Times editorial entitled “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke.” She traces her repulsion for the fruit as blossoming out of understanding its history. The fruit went from being tied to summer traditions, the lightness of family and childhood, to the rotting mess of racism. She writes, “…by the time I was 11 years old, even the smell of watermelon was enough to send me running to the bathroom with my most recent meal returning to my throat. It seemed I had grown violently allergic to the fruit. I was a brown girl growing up in the United States. By that point in my life, I had seen the racist representations associated with African-Americans and watermelons, heard the terrifying stories of black men being lynched with watermelons hanging around them…In a book I found at the library, a camp song about a watermelon vine was illustrated with caricatures of sleepy-looking black people sitting by trees, grinning and eating watermelon. Slowly, the hideousness of the stereotype began to sink in. In the eyes of those who told and repeated the jokes, we were shuffling, googly-eyed and lesser than. Perhaps my allergy was actually a deep physical revulsion that came from the psychological impression and weight of the association. Whatever it was, I could no longer eat watermelon.”

 

Woodson writes in the piece about how she realized her childhood dream of becoming a writer and about how she and Handler have been friends for years. She mentions that when he served watermelon soup at his Cape Cod home last summer, she told him she was allergic. Of his comments at her award ceremony, she writes: “In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from. By making light of that deep and troubled history, he showed that he believed we were at a point where we could laugh about it all. His historical context, unlike my own, came from a place of ignorance.”

 

Ignorance of history and also denial of the significance of the small things in defining the large ones. A watermelon joke is not just a joke in the face of the history of that stereotype.

 

I am reminded of Sam Hamill’s essay “The Necessity to Speak” in which he talks about witnessing violence in the form of war, domestic violence, the criminal justice system, and abuse. When discussing domestic violence, he references popular culture’s complicity in and condoning of it. He writes, “When James Cagney shoves half a grapefruit in a woman’s face, we all laugh and applaud. Nobody likes an uppity woman. And a man who is a man, when all else fails, asserts his ‘masculinity.’” All forms of oppression are different but all oppressed groups are ultimately linked. And they are linked by the times in which someone said or did something oppressive and demeaning that an onlooker decided was no big deal. Oppressions are linked by slurs and taunts and side-glances and critics that say: “aren’t you taking this a little too seriously?” and “can’t you take a joke?”

 

Back in August immediately following Mike Brown’s shooting, Jon Stewart closed a segment of The Daily Show called “Race/Off” by saying: “Race is there and it is a constant. If you’re tired of hearing about it, imagine how exhausting it is living it.”

 

The media reporting of protests surrounding the lack of indictment in Ferguson have focused largely on the “mobs” of people, on the intensity of people’s anger, and not on the reason for their fury. There have been some wonderful articles comparing the difference between why white people riot (winning or losing sporting events) and why black people riot (verdicts like “not guilty” for Zimmerman or “no indictment” for “Wilson,” i.e. no justice for innocent black people being killed). I am reminded too of the two almost identical photos published just after Katrina: one of two black people and the other of two white people wading through water with food from a flooded grocery store. The captions revealed that the black people were “looting” and white people were “finding food.”

 

Last weekend, before the grand jury released its ruling, I read Claudia Rankine’s new book Citizen: An American Lyric. Through lyrical prose about her personal experiences, politics, and pop culture, Rankine explores the perpetual presence of racism in the lives of African-Americans and the extent of the damage it does. On the front cover is a white backdrop with a black hoodie torn from its torso.

 

Except for the last page, written in first person, the book is in second person: firmly placing the reader in the slot of “you.” She writes in one section about Hennessy Youngman, aka Jayson Musson, who, in youtube videos, “advises black artists to cultivate ‘an angry nigger exterior’ by watching, among other things, the Rodney King video while working.”

 

She continues: “Youngman’s suggestions are meant to expose expectations for blackness as well as to underscore the difficulty inherent in any attempt by black artists to metabolize real rage. The commodified anger his video advocates rests lightly on the surface for spectacle’s sake. It can be engaged or played like the race card and is tied solely to the performance of blackness and not to the emotional state of particular individuals in particular situations.”

 

“On the bridge between this sellable anger and ‘the artist’ resides, at times, an actual anger. Youngman in his video doesn’t address this kind of anger: the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color. This other kind of anger in time can prevent, rather than sponsor, the production of anything except loneliness.”

 

“You begin to think, maybe erroneously, that this other kind of anger is really a type of knowledge, the type that both clarifies and disappoints. It responds to insult and attempted erasure simply by asserting presence and the energy required to present, to react, to assert is accompanied by visceral disappointment: a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.”

 

I want to repeat her words again: “anger is really a type of knowledge, the type that both clarifies and disappoints….a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.”

 

I read an article recounting an event in St. Louis following Mike Brown’s shooting where ten black mothers sat and talked to an audience full of mothers—of different ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds—about the experiences they had in talking to their children about race and racism. Director of Racial Justice at the YWCA in St. Louis Amy Hunter told a story about a time when her son was 12 and noticed a police officer following him as he walked. He was only five blocks from home. When he arrived and told her what happened, he asked, “I just want to know, how long will this last?” She cried as she relayed to the audience what she told him, what she had to tell him: “For the rest of your life.”

 

Can we just think about that for a second? That for his whole life, this child, this mother’s son, this boy then young adult then man, this human being will have to walk the “right” way, say the “right” thing in order to attempt to preserve his life. And even if he does everything “right,” he is still at risk of being harmed or killed solely because of the color of his skin. How many more lives lost? How much more will it take for us to change a system that is harming and killing so many citizens of our country?

 

I understand that, as a white person, my perspective is limited and that I cannot fully understand the grief and anger of black individuals and black communities in seeing this same injustice and violence perpetuated over and over again. I felt myself paralyzed this past week with what to say in relationship to this, wondering when and if I should write anything at all.

 

I grew up in New Orleans, a city segregated by color lines. And without anyone ever needing to really explain the idea of separate and unequal, I saw it everywhere. And what I mostly saw was good-hearted white people pretending that nothing was happening. This is happening. People of color are being killed and oppressed solely because of the color of their skin. This is happening. The criminal justice system is rigged against minorities and people of lower socio-economic status. This is happening. Black kids are being killed while white kids are being given the benefit of the doubt. This is happening. People of color are not “playing the race card,” people of color are being played, by a system rigged to oppress them.

 

I believe that many Americans will look back at this time and be as appalled as we are now by lynchings, by blackface, by Interstates built through African-American communities. That’s not good enough, to hope that one day we will look back and be appalled. Let’s be appalled now. Let’s do something to change this.

 

Before Isaac Newton, people believed that pure light was colorless and that light was “altered into color” from interaction with matter. Experimenting with prisms using refraction, Newton revealed the opposite, that light included within it the whole spectrum of color. That a prism didn’t create color but rather separated it, showing what was already present.

 

In ophthalmology, prisms are used to diagnose and treat deficiencies and diseases of the eye. Ophthalmologists use light reflected and refracted by prisms to examine the eye for vision problems so they can be treated. It is only in altering angles, in finding mirrors, in looking in different ways that problems can be identified, that vision can become clear.

 

 

 

Here are some pieces I found insightful/helpful/encouraging/profound in reference to Ferguson:

On Ferguson Protests, the Destruction of Things, and What Violence Really Is (And Isn’t) by Mia McKenzie

Telling My Son About Ferguson by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow

It’s Incredibly Rare For A Grand Jury to Do What Ferguson’s Just Did by Ben Casselman

Twelve Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson by Janee Woods

This Is What Darren Wilson Told the Grand Jury About Shooting Michael Brown by Jaeah Lee and AJ Vicens

“Not An Elegy For Mike Brown”: Two Poems for Ferguson by Danez Smith

Ferguson isn’t about black rage against cops. It’s white rage against progress. by Carol Anderson

Interview with Mike Brown’s parents

 

Claudia Rankine’s amazing book Citizen.

 

 

 

 

 

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pur·sui·vant

Kiss_Me_Kate_logo

 

pur·sui·vant, n[ME. pursevante; OFr. poursuivant, ppr. Of poursuivre  poursuir; see PURSUE]  1.  in the British College of Heralds, an officer ranking below a herald.  2.  a follower, attendant.

 

Reprise: Kate Says Kiss Off

 

 

“My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,/Or else my heart concealing it will break,/And rather than it shall, I will be free/ Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.” –Katharina, The Taming of the Shrew

 

 

I just saw a production of Kiss Me, Kate, the musical based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. With music and lyrics by Cole Porter, the musical takes us through a play-within-a-play plot. We witness the backstage drama of a director and his ex-wife actress reuniting to play the lead roles of Petruchio and Katherine in Shakespeare’s play.

Seeing the show was my recommendation. My parents wanted to celebrate my birthday belatedly and given my strong affinities for musicals as a teenager and the residue of this obsession, going to the play sounded like a good way to spend an afternoon.

As the musical unfurled, there were clear messages about who we were supposed to be on the side of: Petruchio, the man trying to tame the willful woman, and who was supposed to be the butt of the joke: Kate. At its best, the play was oblivious to its messaging: oh, isn’t so darling how she is fighting back so strongly—silly woman. At its worst, a scene feels dangerously close to rape: Petruchio, throws Kate, who has just sung about how she will never kiss him, over his shoulder and victoriously walks away with her to their bridal suite to end Act I.

 

westernkateandpetruchio

 

In another scene, the director is displeased with his actress ex-wife acting out her real anger at him through her character and so, in front of the audience, he throws her on a table and begins spanking her. Her sore bottom becomes a running joke for the rest of the play.

 

kissmekate

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paddlingkate

 

 

Some might say that I’m overreacting, that I’m reading into a play written over sixty years ago with a present day consciousness. And that’s true. But the fact is that the play is being produced and performed now, in our time, and as such it has strong ramifications. The art and music and theater that we engage with influences us and influences what we deem as acceptable behavior.

In an essay by Sam Hamill entitled “The Necessity to Speak,” Hamill attempts to link categories of oppression together and talks about the need to acknowledge these oppressions for what they are. He talks about the different forms violence takes, demonstrated in sexism, racism, classism, and war. One of the central focuses of his essay is the stories of women he has worked with who have been victims of domestic violence. He links the abuse of these women to the way we are taught to think of women in our culture. He writes about how James Cagney would smash a grapefruit into a woman’s face and everyone would laugh because “Nobody likes an uppity woman.” Nobody likes a woman who doesn’t know her place.

A play like this one—where the strong-willed woman needs to be tamed; where her refusal to be married is completely ignored; where her voice and her actions, no matter how loud or demonstrative, do not matter; where she is powerless because her desires are given no respect by those around her—is deeply problematic. Ultimately, this is a play in which a woman’s fiery spirit is the punchline, and her lack of volition, the happy ending

I spent the first act seething in my seat. At intermission, when I checked the playbill for what was to come, I saw that the penultimate song in the musical is entitled “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple.” I pointed this out to my parents. My dad assumed the best, that the song would be tongue in cheek, a sort of meta-commentary on the sexism displayed in the play. No such luck.

In “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple,” Kate decries her former choices and thus the former iteration of herself. It turns out that she was trying to make herself and her life complicated when really she, like all women, is simple. She sings, “I am ashamed that women are so simple/To offer war where they should kneel for peace,/Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway/When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.” At the end of the song, Kate kneels before her soon-to-be husband and bows her head in a position of complete submission.

And then, with a reprise of the song “Kiss Me, Kate” (SPOILER ALERT: She kisses him), the curtain falls, with all the gender roles safely intact.

Does it sound like I’m angry? Well, that’s because I also take the play personally. I am a Kate.

By this I mean, I am a strong-willed, intelligent woman. I have opinions about things. And I speak my opinions about things. Out loud. Sometimes, I disagree with other people! Sometimes the people I disagree with are women and sometimes they are men. And it is exactly we Kates that the world is trying to shame into submission.

I spent my adolescence trying to navigate my sense of self in relation to others, particularly boys, because I grew up in the South, where there are still very clearly defined gender roles. When I read Mary Pipher’s book Reviving Ophelia in my early twenties, I began to understand the dichotomy of who I was supposed to be. In the book, Pipher examines the struggles of teenage girls who are having identity crises. They were told as young girls to work hard, to dream big, to share their ideas with others. As they grew, they were also taught to small themselves, to not make waves, to make themselves attractive to boys by being less intelligent and more conciliatory.

Towards the beginning of the play, in one of the first moments when Kate speaks for herself, she sings a song entitled “I Hate Men.” It’s so interesting to me, the whole idea of this song. Because it seems the only way writers felt they could explain why a woman like Kate wouldn’t want to marry or why she wants some volition in her life must be because she hates men. Could it be that—at Shakespeare’s time, at Cole Porter’s time, even now—she doesn’t have access to the same opportunity or the same respect as men? Or that in many place,  by the act of marrying, she becomes less than a whole person, a servant, a kind of property? I guess that’s not catchy or concise as a song title.

Men aren’t getting any favors from their depiction in the play either. Petruchio, the man who has agreed to tame Kate, comes off as a pompous player. After he has locked Kate in her bridal chamber, he sings “Where is the Life That Late I Led?”, a song detailing all the romantic dalliances he had before, the ones he gave up to be with this shrew of a woman. He names each woman and what she meant to him. There was a Lisa, actually. She “gave a new meaning to the Leaning Tower of Pisa.” How charming.

I believe so strongly in the power of discourse. A struggle I encounter when I start to talk about issues of inequality or misogyny is that oftentimes people aren’t interested in a discussion. But aren’t these the kind of discussions worth having? Aren’t they the ones that could change futures and save lives? I would have appreciated the opportunity for a dialogue after the play. Maybe I could see the play in a new way or maybe I would have had the opportunity to witness my own concerns voiced in a different way.

I have been thinking about the power of language lately. And how, at certain points in my life, certain words and stories and songs have literally saved me. When I feel compelled to write, oftentimes it is because I have butted up against some idea or concept or perspective that I am wrestling with. Writing is a way for me to work through it and to offer a different way of seeing something.

In the closing scene, Kate sings: “So, wife, hold your temper and meekly put/ Your hand ‘neath the sole of your husband’s foot/ In token of which duty, if he please/ My hand is ready/ Ready/ May it do him ease.”

And here, the dutiful woman is again restored to her position of servitude, a pursuivant to her husband’s needs. The fact that this play can be performed now without a hint of hesitation, without women in the play or women in the audience voicing discomfort, outrage, or dissonance reveals much about the society we live in. It is a society in which many religions still require the word “obey” for women as part of marriage vows. And where a woman can be sentenced twenty years for firing a warning shot when her ex-husband threatened to kill her and her child. It is a society where young men rape a young woman and brag about it on social media. Where, when given sentences for their crime, these young men are spoken of as young men of promise, put away before their time. It is a society in which to even write this and acknowledge these things, to express my perspective, is to risk me being called oversensitive, man-hating, or a bitch. But you know what? These things need attention brought to them. Because this play and pieces of art way more demonstrably misogynistic are constantly being produced without a sense of awareness about the aspects of them that are detrimental to all people, all genders.

As I was watching the play, feeling myself immersed in reactivity, I knew that when I left the theater, I could write about it. Each of us needs to complete the picture that these kind of experiences and shows leave out. We need to vocalize why we have a knot in the pit of our stomach or fire in our veins so that others can understand. Maybe then, we have an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and treat everyone with dignity and respect, honoring every single person as a whole human being.

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