By Daniel Garrett
Music, History, Current Events: Jarekus Singleton, The Black Keys, and Conor Oberst
The guitarist and singer-songwriter Jarekus Singleton’s song “Refuse to Lose,” which gives his 2014 album its title, is a driving blues song, full of the difficulties of a hard life—menial work, living with mother, and the disapproval of associates—and the determination to survive and prosper. Jarekus Singleton had been on his way to a celebrated life in sports, when injury ended that dream—and Singleton turned to music, which required humility and hard work, and he has emerged to new welcome. It is hard to distinguish the guitar and drums in his song “Refuse to Lose” from rock music—it is loud, propulsive wailing. Yet, the conversational singing would be at home in blues rhythm and blues, or rap. It is a very contemporary sound, though the blues base is obvious and strong. Hard times and planning and pride end in personal triumph. The music on Jarekus Singleton’s album Refuse to Lose (Alligator Records, 2014) has a bright, grooving sound, and his singing is appealing—natural, relaxed, convincing—whether in “Purposely” or “Gonna Let Go” or most of the other songs. “Purposely” explores perception and paranoia—a man thinks a troublesome woman is intentionally driving him crazy. (Not that rare a thought: the desire to get someone else to see and accept a thought or reality that is resisted can feel tormenting.) “Gonna Let Go” has a rhythm that seems simple, a kind of boogie, but the guitar is screaming and Singleton’s singing is good, soulfully warm. There is a terrific sense of drama throughout the album that becomes explicit in “Crime Scene,” with a metaphorical reference for a song with structural heft and intricacy. “Crime Scene” is a downbeat blues ballad about a woman’s negative effect on a man. It is intense without a loss of emotional or musical control. One wonders: are men and women so different in temperament and needs that conflict is predictable, recurring? Or is that just a good story? Love, sex, trouble, work, and music are fairly traditional themes for the blues—and for popular music.
Jarekus Singleton’s collection is concurrent with much other good music: BluesAmericana by Keb Mo; Comet, Come to Me by Meshell Ndegeocello; East End Sojourn by the Verve Jazz Ensemble; Floating by the Fred Hersch Trio; Heroes & Misfits by Kris Bowers; I Will Not Be Afraid by Caroline Rose; In the Shadows of No Towers by Mohammed Fairouz; Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill by Audra MacDonald; A Life Worth Living by Marc Broussard; Mutations by Vijay Iyer; Nostalgia by Annie Lennox; Prospect Hill by Dom Flemons; Quiet Pride by Rufus Reid; Refuse to Lose by Jarekus Singleton; Return to Zooathalon by Sananda Maitreya; Traces of You by Anoushka Shankar; Turn Blue by the Black Keys; Upside Down Mountain by Conor Oberst; and What I Heard by Oliver Lake.
Singleton’s family—grandfather, mother, uncle—are musicians but he thought his career would be in sports, and played basketball for the University of Mississippi, and sought opportunities with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers, and then he received an ankle injury. Jarekus Singleton has played blues clubs and festivals, winning competitions. Singleton spoke of his work on his music and his sending demonstration music to Alligator Records, telling Eric Harabadian of the online Music Connection (May 1, 2014), “You can do everything perfect and it still might not work out. It’s not what happens to you but how you adjust!”
Jarekus Singleton’s album has a very accomplished, full-bodied sound. On Jarekus Singleton’s album Refuse to Lose, the song “Keep Pushin’” is about the theft of a favorite car. Singleton explores here is own biography, noting how a promising basketball career was cut short by injury; and his determination to “keep pushin’” is consistent in the tale, which includes the commitment to music. Singleton is one of the men—one thinks of Kevin Moore (Keb Mo) and Robert Cray and Taj Mahal, although there are women too, such as Cassandra Wilson and Shemekia Copeland—who are keeping the blues alive. The poet and essayist LeRoi Jones wrote about that music tradition years ago—about the development of musical forms and the enslaved Africans and then freed but mistreated black Americans , the troubled people, who made music into a culture. LeRoi Jones considered his book on the blues a work of speculation, but it is full of facts as well as ideas and insights and remains worthy of significant respect: the book Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963), originally published by William Morrow and republished by Greenwood Press in 1980. (I read recently—and note—the Greenwood edition.) The African found himself in a place in which thought and customs were profoundly different: “I would also have to insist that the African, because of the violent differences between what was native and what he was forced to in slavery, developed some of the most complex and complicated ideas about the world imaginable,” claims Jones (page 7). Jones recognized a variety of western biases, such as not seeing the western tradition itself as exotic in the eyes of others; and Jones reminds us that “Negroes are the only descendants of people who were not happy to come here” (page 12). LeRoi Jones asserts that African political and economic thinking were suppressed and that African craft work was neglected too. Music became a space of freedom, a place and thing with which mind, imagination, and spirit could work and play. The African musical scale is different from the European and its influences could be seen in the darkening, lengthening, blurring of notes (pages 24 and 25). Shifts in pitch and tone changes the meaning of words—something we still notice today. Work songs and religious music came before the blues (there may have been some African roots but they too carried traces of the new, painful American counter, Jones claims). Blues was born of Africans developing the sensibility to express their difficult American experience—it would not exist without that experience. Jazz came from blues. “Each man had his own voice and his own way of shouting—his own life to sing about,” declares Jones (page 61).
LeRoi Jones’s text contains a great amount of knowledge—historical, intellectual, and cultural. “The blues is formed out of the same social and musical fabric that the spiritual issued from, but with blues the social emphasis becomes more personal, the ‘Jordan’ of the song much more intensely a human accomplishment,” states scholar, poet, and playwright LeRoi Jones in his book Blues People (page 63). The blues songs were first sung with voice alone, then the simplest instruments—drums, rattles, harmonica, guitar. The guitar was made to sing. Blues became influenced by various forms of popular music, even theater and the music there. “Given the deeply personal quality of blues-singing, there could be no particular method for learning blues. As a verse form, it was the lyrics which were most important, and they issued from life. But classic blues, took on a certain degree of professionalism,” claims Jones (page 82). It had some formal complexity and entertainment value and singers could begin to make money from it. Social development and progress were reflected in music in every successive era: changes of situation influenced changes of mind that further influenced changes in art. Urban blues was recorded before country blues. Ragtime and the fast, rhythmic boogie-woogie were Negro uses of white piano technique. Jones’s summary of all this history is full of believable marvels, a tribute to a harried but lasting accomplishment.
In contemporary blues musician Jarekus Singleton’s song “Suspicion” on his album Refuse to Lose, the odd behavior of a woman—she leaves home early—is the subject of a man’s concern, the mundane as the center of drama. New behaviors suggest new causes and inspire doubt. It is the classic theme of adultery—classic in literature, film, and music. Singleton must like some of his women disturbed: a woman withdraws, and has headaches when her man is ready for sex: “When I die, I’m going to heaven baby. / You already too me through hell,” Singleton declares in another song, the spare and taut “Hell.” Even some men given Singleton trouble. There is a sense of competition from someone who has been a colleague, even a hero: someone ambitious proves to be shallow and hypocritical—and, consequently, the inspiring colleague ceases to be that in “Hero,” with the singer stating, “I’m going to be my own hero.”
“High Minded” makes topical references—whereas “Hell” makes reference to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble—and there are references in “High Minded” to Training Day and Denzel Washington. “I ain’t in no mood to train you,” Singleton chides. A wider range of topics would be most interesting—beyond hard times, determination, and woman trouble. In the song, the woman wants to take a trip to some place she’s never been: “Well, pack your bags and go to the kitchen,” he says. Relationships figure in “Sorry,” like a continuation of the previous song. “When I think about the pain you caused, I don’t feel sorry at all,” the narrator says of an abandoned relationship.
Unlike the band the Black Keys and singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, Jarekus Singleton may not be trying hard enough to find new thematic material: yet there is hope for Singleton in the consistency of his comic tendencies. There is a great deal of humor and truth in “Blame Game,” about irresponsibility, in which self-pity is shrewdly assessed: the song is satire. “My life ain’t going good—let’s find out who I can blame,” the narrator mocks, in an account of lazy, self-indulgent, and deceitful behavior. “I burnt all my bridges—and bit all the hands that fed me,” Singleton sings. It is the opposite of real trouble, the kind of trouble some blacks faced in the past and some still face today. In Doran Larson’s book anthology Fourth City: Essays from Prison in American (Michigan State Univ. Press, 2013), the author Julius Humphrey Sr. gives a concise biographical account of the youthful life that brought him to a path of great trouble: A mother paralyzed after being shot by her husband; racist foster family parents; corporal punishment; malnourishment; and being taken from a caring, older black couple and returned to his biological mother who opened their living quarters to criminal associates who had sex there in front of the children. In Julius Humphrey Sr.’s text “Ticket In” Humphrey describes being a boy and drinking alcohol to drown hunger; juvenile delinquency leading to legal court cases; heroin use; pimping and more. How could anyone prosper, or survive in such a life? Love of nature, public school education, and a development of some adult skills such as cooking or child care do not balance the bad. Such true difficulties are far different from the trivial blame games some people play, such as the figure in Singleton’s song. Jarekus Singleton’s album ends with an optimistic, uptempo song, “Come with Me,” in which the singer promises, “Just trust me baby. I’m gonna turn your world around.” Promises are made—they must be kept. Or else.
Does the content of art have to change before the direction of life changes, or does the life have to change before the art changes? How do we multiply the positive comparisons that illuminate what we share rather than how we differ? The promise of multiculturalism is not only that we will recognize and respect diversity—the diverse histories, philosophies, cultures, and perspectives of the world—but that we will embrace diversity, finding pleasure and wisdom in it. Or will we simply conflict; and wonder and worry? Yet, we celebrate—the beginning and sometimes the end of love; friendships begun, sustained, neglected, and renewed; and accomplishments dreamed, completed, and brought to the attention of the world. We celebrate the ending of one year and the beginning of the next. There are wonderful things to be seen every day. Some of the international events scheduled are: Battle of the Oranges in Italy, Feb. 14, 2015; Bastille Day, July 14, 2015; London Design Festival, Sept 19, 2015; and an art exhibit on poet and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini and his relation to the city of Rome opens in Berlin, September 11, 2015; another exhibit celebrating Turkish film and love is at the Istanbul Modern, starting September 25, 2015; the Miami Book Fair International is November 15 to 22, 2015; and Dinayang, in the Philippines, January 11, 2015. Some of the national events are: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Image Awards February 6, 2015, Mardi Gras, Feb. 17, 2015; and the Beale Street music festival in Tennessee, May 1, 2015; Chicago Blues Festival, June 13, 2015; and Cinco de Mayo, May 5, 2015; and there are new books coming from John Irving and Toni Morrison, and new films from Olivier Assayas and the Wachowski siblings. There are other events, past, present, and future—of mind and matter.
Jarekus Singleton may mine the blues for sound and story, while the Black Keys has used the blues as the foundation of its rock music—as did the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and many other bands following Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. Singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney are the Black Keys; and the work of the Black Keys has remained an event for the band’s admirers. When Turn Blue, the collection of songs by the musicians, which producer Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) worked on, came out in 2014, of course, the album was received with enthusiasm. Turn Blue (Nonesuch, 2014) is a solid recording, with a variety of sounds, the most intriguing being those that do not fit the expected hard-driving, blues-influenced rock sound: these are songs with something of a sensual groove, with a high-voiced delivery. Yet, from song to song, one senses an immense control and a fundamental hardness. There is less change and less sensitivity here than at first appears: or maybe the band has acquired new colors and strength without losing command of all they had before. In “Weight of Love,” an eerily downbeat song, with a clear but heavy sound, the narrator sings of someone who is difficult, solitary—and, at times, the music seems bluesily orchestral. Speculative lyrics about mind and heart are sung in a high voice above a groove in the song “In Time,” and there is a light, slinky sound; and there are lyrics about experience and music and love and the possibility of an afterlife in “Turn Blue.” It is possible to dance to this music.
On Turn Blue, “Fever” by the Black Keys is a recall of New Wave rhythms, with shifts in musical structure. The mess of relationships, and how hard it is to understand and discuss and correct them is the subject of “Year in Review”: the sung recognitions or recriminations include the lines “you don’t want to know more” and “the only thing you got is you.” The guitar playing is a little reminiscent of the Rolling Stones in the Black Keys song “Bullet in the Brain,” with some of the song’s atmospherics suggesting Ennio Morricone. The song, like much of the album, seems eclectic in its influences, and yet contemporary: it is the eclecticism that defines its contemporary sensibility. With guitar feedback and the trilling of notes, “It’s Up to You Now” has a fast tempo and echoing voice. A ringing guitar riff is at the start of “Waiting on Words,” a somewhat Beatlesque song featuring lyrics of romantic expectation—and separation: “Goodbye, don’t know where you’re going. The only thing I know—my love for you is real.”
The album has a warm variety, from classic popular music to disco. It is a very inviting sound—current and relaxed, without sacrificing conviction. In “10 Lovers” one line is falsetto and the next is not and followed by falsetto again—and a rich sonic text is created, with a groove at its base. “We made our mark when we were in our prime,” the narrator claims in “In Our Prime.” Doubtful about women, and traveling to get away from someone, the sad tale told in “Gotta Get Away” is given rhythmic speed.
One always was more inclined to think of folk music, rather than the blues, when considering Conor Oberst. The lyrics of Conor Oberst are honest, tough, and sensitive; and his music sounds genuinely varied and free—featuring rock, country, African high life, and Spanish guitar—on his album Upside Down Mountain (2014). Conor Oberst sounds like someone alive at the same time as we are—alive and observant, believably touched by thought and experience; and alone, strange, and recognizably human. His album Upside Down Mountain (Nonesuch, 2014) seems carefree and intense, yearning, and pushing against limitations.
To be loved or be free? With a slowly evolving melody, and lyrics that are a series of ruminations, “Time Forgot” has a pulsating beat and a rhythm that might be inspired—a little—by African high life. “Zigzagging Toward the Light” recalls Neil Young (the guitars get loud). “I’m blessed with a heart that doesn’t stop,” sings Conor Oberst. In “Hundreds of Ways, Oberst declares, “It took centuries to build these twisted cities. It took seconds to reduce them down to dust.” Is there a more contemporary thought? In that song there are several rhythms, sometimes at the same time, and one does not expect its horns. “There are hundreds of ways to get through the days. Just find one,” advises Oberst. Other songs feature light rhythms, melancholy thoughts, Spanish notes, separation and yearning; a country twang and the assertion that “There are no boundaries to love”; music dramatic and spare, and observations and revelations. Birth and illness and worry about a child are the subject of “You are Your Mother’s Child,” with acknowledgment given to the necessity of growth and independence. In “Governor’s Ball,” the listener finds a glamorous social event, with entertainment on stage and some hustling offstage and the inevitable conflict; and yet its sound seems to reach back to an era before rock music. Is Oberst exploring or experiencing cynicism? “Made a lot of friends but they can’t be trusted,” he says in “Desert Island Questionnaire.” The closing song, “Common Knowledge,” is about someone who seems selfish and sad, an idiosyncratic friend. How much perception is projection? Upside Down Mountain is rather startling music from a favorite artist.
History as Biography: Thomas Paine, Ralph Emerson, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Barack Obama
Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809), the Anglo-American diplomat, activist, and writer, represented the American colonies in Britain in 1774, but he was instrumental in making a case for American independence with his essay “Common Sense,” circulated as a pamphlet in 1776—it was forty-eight pages, forming what could be considered a very short book. Thomas Paine, establishing general observations and principles, makes distinctions between the social and the political, and the importance of a politics that arises out of genuine social conditions and values; and Paine argued that British government and monarchy are not applicable to American conditions, concluding on the necessity and right of independence—for integrity, for self-defense, for commerce. “I have heard it asserted by some, that as America has flourished under her former connection with Great Britain, the same connection is necessary towards her future happiness, and will always have the same effect. Nothing can be more fallacious than this kind of argument. We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, that it is never to have meat, or that the first twenty years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty,” wrote Paine. Paine’s other commentaries—in the form of The American Crisis—championed the same independence. Thomas Paine would become secretary of the committee of foreign affairs in 1778; clerk of the Pennsylvania legislature; and a farm owner, before publishing The Rights of Man, in response to Edmund Burke’s analysis of the French Revolution. The Rights of Man sold more than a million copies in England, and brought charges of treason, leading Paine to move to France—where he remained controversial. Paine returned to America and published The Age of Reason, a book on religion. Tom Paine, like other writers to come, established analyses, arguments, and mission informed by genuine American experience—doing work that was philosophical and practical.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882) is an important thinker and writer for many artists and citizens for his championing of free thinking, of individuality: Emerson thought that each human being must accept and nurture his own originality, his own integrity. Ralph Waldo Emerson relished the frisky confidence of boys, but lamented the constrictions of adult considerations and manners. Society and its customs encouraged confinement. The earthy Massachusetts philosopher was, with Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, one of the American transcendentalists: they believed that, with intuition and will, transcendence was possible for each individual. The son of a minister, Ralph Emerson attended Harvard and himself became a minister, but his wife’s early death would lead him to question his traditional faith (he would remarry). Emerson, a man who could be ambivalent about society, traveled to Europe, where he consulted with leading thinkers and writers, and returned to America and lectured on ethics and spirituality. Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” is a classic text: in it, he said, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Yet, Ralph Waldo Emerson soon “found that his accounts with publishers added little to his financial prospects. His earned income almost entirely from his lectures, was still dwarfed by his receipts from securities,” Emerson’s biography Ralph L. Rusk says in The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1949), a Columbia University Press book; proof that for writers some things do not change: wisdom does not make one rich but it can make one essential. Emerson, inspired by Plato, Plutarch, Montaigne, Francis Bacon, and the age of enlightenment, as well as his reading of American culture and documents, is considered a founding and transformative figure in liberal culture by scholar Neal Dolan, who wrote Emerson’s Liberalism (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009): reason, science, democracy, free markets, political rights, self-assertion, equality of opportunity, and literary and social criticism are all of value to Emerson and his work. (His work was given to me by a high school librarian, a southern lady.) Who can resist a man who lists the intellectual limits of Jesus? In fact, the public gave Emerson’s work a mixed response in his lifetime—he had respect and mockery.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, better known to us by his adopted name Frederick Douglass (1817 – 1895), was born in Maryland to an enslaved woman, and self-educated, and he was treated badly as an enslaved person—Frederick Bailey tried and failed to escape in 1836, but succeeded in 1838, getting to Massachusetts, where Frederick changed his last name from Bailey to Douglass. Frederick Douglass spoke at an anti-slavery convention in 1841 in Massachusetts, beginning his career as an abolitionist: Douglass began to work with the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, and worked with the Underground Railroad too. Frederick Douglass went to England in 1845 for his personal safety—after passage of the fugitive slave laws, which could have allowed his return to enslavement—and there Douglass gave speeches on slavery (and funds were raised to purchase his freedom). Upon his return to American, Douglass started a newspaper, North Star. Douglass campaigned for Abraham Lincoln as presidential candidate, and Douglass helped to enlist black soldiers for Massachusetts 54th and 55th regiments in the civil war. Frederick Douglass fought for passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th constitutional amendments: these amendments abolished slavery, declared all persons born in or naturalized in the country as citizens, including African-Americans, and denied any state or local government the ability to prohibit voting based on color or previous condition of servitude. Subsequently, Frederick Douglass became U.S. marshal in the District of Columbia (1977 – 81); recorder of deeds in D.C. (1881 – 1886), and U.S. minister to Haiti (1889 – 1891). His book Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1882) was a revision of the earlier 1845 Narrative.
The still remembered and deeply revered William Edward Burghardt DuBois (1968 – 1963) was an exemplary scholar and political activist; and DuBois was born in Massachusetts, educated at Fisk, Harvard, and the University of Berlin; and he taught at Atlanta University, was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and an editor of its publication The Crisis, and a chairman of the Peace Information Center in New York, but—disillusioned with America—DuBois became a citizen of Ghana late in life. W.E.B. DuBois would not be the first very intelligent black man whose very reasonable but very idealistic hopes led to great disappointment in, and even bitterness with, the country of his birth. Yet, DuBois was indisputably productive and progressive; and he left behind many books, including The Philadelphia Negro (1899), The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Black Reconstruction (1935), The World and Africa (1947), and Worlds of Color (1962).
Richard Wright (1908 – 1960): The Mississippi youth Richard Wright’s intelligence, creativity, and rebellion moved him beyond the boundaries of race, class, caste, and common expectations. Wright had grown up in an atmosphere of hunger and judgment, of fear and need and piety and violence; and his family of women tried to force religion on him: “Wherever I found religion in my life I found strife, the attempt of one individual or group to rule another in the name of God. The naked will to power seemed always to walk in the wake of a hymn,” Wright wrote in Black Boy (Harper, 1945 and 1991; pages 159 and 160). Other family members would try to break his spirit too, but Richard Wright would not be ruled. Somehow Richard Wright survived the religious dogma and conformist customs of his family and the blunt, brutal racism of the American south. In Chicago, Wright worked with the Works Progress Administration in its writers program, a federal program—later the Work Projects Administration—that utilized the skills and passions of Americans in a difficult time. Wright joined and left the Communist Party, and found freedom of thought and movement in Paris, where he moved in 1950. Richard Wright’s radical independence had galled white southerners and northerners, communists, ignorant Negroes, and James Baldwin. Richard Wright’s works opened a variety of paths for other writers, from the beginning of his career onward, including work published after his death: Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), Native Son (1940), Black Boy (1945), The Outsider (1953), and a book on Africa—Black Power (1954), and another book on Asia and the Bandung Conference—The Color Curtain (1957), and Pagan Spain (1957) White Man, Listen (1957), The Long Dream (1958), and, then, Eight Men (1961) and Lawd Today (1963), and much later, the surprising and pleasing poetry collection Haiku: This Other World (1998). “If I did not want others to violate my life, how could I voluntarily violate it myself?” Wright had asked himself as a young man, questioning recounted in Black Boy (page 298). I have loved Richard Wright and relished his work, forgotten him, missed him, and found him again—what a brave and intelligent man.
African-American experience and the principal interpretation of that experience go against the dominant myth of America as a free and open society: slavery and hateful discrimination, marked by brutality, exploitation, and ignored petitions for justice; and that difference from preferred myth inspires further difficulties and resistance. Part of the success of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was the appeal to ideals, to inclusion and justice, and the emphasis on a people ready to work and be good citizens. James Baldwin (1924 – 1987), the author of Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953), Notes of a Native Son (1955), Another Country (1962), The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and Just Above My Head (1979), participated in the civil rights movement as activist and chronicler, and Baldwin spoke of the damage bigotry did to all Americans. In James Baldwin’s fiction and essays, one can find various themes—the centrality of consciousness and choice; the contact of people beyond the confinements of religion, class, race, gender and sexuality; the prevalence of the artist figure as personal and public conduit; the camaraderie of creative work; family as cauldron of conflict, torment, and sustenance; hypocrisy as a sign of weakness and wound; and the inclination of bisexuality: the ability to respond to both women and men with imagination, empathy, and sensuality, with affection, insight, and desire; and the importance of having the courage of one’s emotions and sensuality; the need to give voice to complexity; the amorality of youth; the fatality of police forces; the inevitability of legacy for better or worse—and the haunting of memory. W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin are but three of many of the intellectuals and writers who worked to move American conscience.
In James Baldwin’s Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems (2014), introduced by Nikky Finney, and published by Beacon Press, Finney calls Baldwin the “most salient, sublime, and consequential American writer of the twentieth century” (page ix). Nikky Finney’s commentary is an emphatic, faithful summary of Baldwin’s life and work, a commendation of the honesty that intimidated others. Finney celebrates Baldwin’s poetry for its informality, imagery, counter-metrics, verve, truth, observation, humor, and declared love for others. I do not like all of the poems, but am glad to have them—those I have read before, and those that are new to me. “Imagination / creates the situation, / and, then, the situation / creates imagination,” Baldwin states in the short verse of “Imagination” (page 32). There is strong allegory in “Guilt, Desire and Love,” which turns emotion into a theater happening on the streets, featuring a furtive eroticism. The love and disagreement in families is expressed: “Although you know / what’s best for me, / I cannot act on what you see,” Baldwin admits in “Mirrors,” a poem for his brother David, a poem of fellowship, exasperation, and understanding, of loyalty, trust, and truth (page 58). James Baldwin asks America “Why / have you allowed yourself / to become so grimly wicked?” in “A Lover’s Question” (page 60). It is a poem of history and interrogation, of accusation and tenderness. “Gypsy” is a long poem, dream and story, of domesticity and police threat.
James Baldwin had his own vocabulary of virtues and vices; and one of the best books about his work is that of Lawrie Balfour’s The Evidence of Things Not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy (2001), from Cornell University Press. There have been other good books on the man’s life and work: David Leeming’s James Baldwin: A Biography and James Campbell’s Talking at the Gates and Magdalena Zaborowska’s Turkish Decade; and Therman O’Daniel’s James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation, Horace Porter’s Stealing the Fire, and Lynn Orilla Scott’s James Baldwin’s Later Fiction. James Baldwin is the subject of a 2014 book in the Challenging Authors series from Sense Publishers, located in Rotterdam, Boston, and Taipei. James Baldwin, Challenging Authors, edited by A. Scott Henderson and P.L. Thomas, has some strong essays: Susan Watson Turner’s “Why Theater, Mr. Baldwin”; Dwan Henderson Simmons’ “From James’ Portrait to Baldwin’s Room”; Sion Dayson’s “Another Country,” on Baldwin’s life abroad; Jeffrey Santa Ana’s “Feeling in Radical Consciousness”; A. Scott Henderson’s “Uplift Versus Upheaval,” on the recommended pedagogy of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin; and Pekka Kilpelainen’s “James Baldwin’s Gospel of Postcategorical Love.” Susan Watson Turner recalls a college campus visit by Baldwin before discussing The Amen Corner (1954) and Blues for Mr. Charlie (1964); and Turner records white theater history’s hostility to African-American intelligence and vision; the difficulties of achieving black independence; and the spiritual and political motives of Baldwin’s work. Dwan Simmons compares Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956), and sees Baldwin’s work as unifying literary traditions and populations. Henry James’ text The Portrait of a Lady, one of the great American novels, focused on an American girl, her hopes for herself and choice of men, and the book suggests the limits of gender expectations and the necessity of other recognitions and values. Baldwin argues for androgyny, and the possibility of social change beginning in the individual, something the Italian Giovanni accepts but the American David rejects in Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, a novel that makes vivid social prohibitions and perversities. Simmons provides a close reading of Baldwin’s text.
In the Sense Publishers anthology edited by Henderson and Thomas, Sion Dayson in the essay “Another Country” calls Baldwin a “great American writer,” and says that Baldwin “continues to touch younger writers” (page 77). Dayson draws attention to how Baldwin’s time abroad in France, Switzerland, Turkey, liberated his vision, and enabled him to move beyond ideas of victor and victim and other social and theoretical contractions, in order to see humanity whole. Sion Dayson notes how in Baldwin’s hands “the concrete particular raised to the poetic musing” is his technique (page 83). Dayson notes the imperative for Baldwin to return to America for the civil rights movement and the toll that participation took on his spirit and writing. (It seems Baldwin was dispirited, and returned to explicit ideas of victor and victim.) Jeffrey Santa Ana, who notes Baldwin’s international acclaim, draws attention to Baldwin’s published dialogues with feminist poet Audre Lorde and anthropologist Margaret Mead (Mead’s name is incorrectly spelled, as is Frederick Douglass’s name elsewhere); and Santa Ana, in “Feeling in Radical Consciousness,” identifies the modern capitalist society as the fundamental problem—capitalism is so pervasive and rational (dangerous and punishing) it is accepted as natural, despite the anxieties and damaging effects it produces in people. Jeffrey Santa Ana sees anger as a marker of radical consciousness, and notes that Baldwin and Lorde refer to capitalism without naming it—though it had been named by Baldwin with Mead. The whole essay is remarkable for explicating a dimension of experience and understanding that has been neglected in study of Baldwin, though its reality is vivid in Baldwin’s literature. Anger, pain, and empathy can be keys to a changed consciousness.
The writer A. Scott Henderson, in “Uplift Versus Upheaval,” demonstrates that while Ralph Ellison advocated the cultural value of blacks and affirmed the promise of America and wanted blacks taught facts, skills, and ideas as Americans, James Baldwin was for alternative teaching methods and content—less integration into the educational system than changing the system itself. Pekka Kilpelainen, in “James Baldwin’s Gospel of Postcategorical Love,” discusses Baldwin’s critique of categories and essences, Baldwin’s transgression and transcendence—and the possibilities of community, democracy, truth, and joy. Some of the other essays on Baldwin have tried to interpret him too narrowly, too simply, for my taste, but it is great to know that many people are still grappling with his ideas. There was an anticipated, exciting event held in commemoration of the work of James Baldwin in April 2014 in New York—April 23 through 27—a New York Live Arts event, featuring lectures and panels and performances, proof that the man is still alive in our lives and minds; although there are other artists and writers whose lives and works raise similar ideas and issues: Alain Locke, Richmond Barthé, Countee Cullen, Bayard Rustin, Alvin Ailey, Little Richard, Andy Bey, Samuel Delany Glenn Ligon, Randall Kenan, John Keene, and Kehinde Wiley.
It would make more sense to invest effort, thought, and time in cultivating courage, compassion, confidence, dignity, diligence, discipline, fairness, fellowship, generosity, gentleness, harmony, intelligence, knowledge, sensitivity, strength, and wisdom, rather than confirming and exploring the old, tired divisions of caste, class, race, gender, sexuality, and religion; but how often do human beings do the significantly sensible thing? The ongoing confusion and conflicts that attach themselves to certain social categories—thanks to our ignorance or fear or greed—inspires generation after generation to grapple with those facts, feelings, ideas, and the institutions and cultural forms that sustain them. We take sides—for or against, conservative or liberal. The conservatives seem disciplined, restrained, traditional, pious, judgmental, rejecting, practical, literal, provincial, humble, simple, aged, people of national pride, masculine, bland, stable, straight, focused, and hypocritical—except when they are not. The liberals seem spontaneous, expressive, modern, sensuous, accepting, compassionate, philosophical, imaginative, cosmopolitan, condescending, doctrinaire, international, youthful, feminine, colorful, shifting, queer, divided, and self-critical—except, of course, when they are not. We fall into and out of the categories and keep pointing fingers of accusation: each sees the other as intended to bring down civilization. What is the difference between protest and revolution? Either establishment does not know, cannot tell: the difference is what is in the heads and spirits of the protesters, what they want, and how far they are prepared to go to achieve their goals.
It is not difficult to think of the United States of America as still divided between north and south, with the north associated with city, knowledge, diversity, artifice, crowds, secular life, complexity, resources, families constructed of friends, pleasure, ambition, confidence, sensuality, and stimulation, an expression of optimism and an embodiment of the future; or to think of the south as country or rural life, a place of customs and rituals, homogeneity, nature, isolation, religion, simplicity, self-reliance, blood family, sobriety, resignation, doubt, piety, boredom, an affirmation of the past, an expression of the tragic or fatalistic sense. There is some truth to every perception, but there are also exceptions, realties that blur and digress and shift away from expectations and presumptions.
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends—hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet fire of progress throughout our history,” said Barack Obama to a great audience, on the day of his inauguration as the forty-fourth president of the United States. Barack Obama, once a community organizer, law professor, and senator, would preside over a country and government in which the public and the private are much intertwined: in areas of education and health care and safety, science and technology, manufacturing and construction, infrastructure and transportation, laws and regulations, income rates and taxes, as well as hopes for the future. For a community and country to survive and prosper, it must cultivate its ideals and institutions, its principles and practices—and the president is emblem and executive of all that. Barack Obama as president would learn that not everyone shared his sense of reconciliation; or, as in a Will Smith film, had appreciation for a truly magical Negro. The old conflicts regarding class, race, gender, sexuality, and religion would flare again and again; and there would be new concerns and problems too: global warming, finance system corruption and crisis, international terrorism, the ongoing Palestinian catastrophe, national safety and security threats, police brutality, labor unemployment, the erasure of Native Americans, the bigotry attached to African-Americans, the discomfort over Latino immigration, and continuing debates regarding gender and sexuality, particularly abortion and gay marriage, with the blunt assertions of Christian dogma interfering in politics, as well as the crassness and triviality of public discourse and popular culture. Barack Obama would attempt again and again to address the important issues—with great opposition.
There is a small and growing library of books about the coolly intelligent, elegant, lean Barack Obama, a man with an appreciation for the dialectical dynamics of personality, philosophy, and politics, someone who loves basketball as much as books and has a taste for thoughtful popular culture similar to that of his educated contemporaries: Barack Obama wrote Dreams from My Fatherand The Audacity of Hope, but there have been other books exploring his life and philosophy and career: Reading Obama by James T. Kloppenberg (Princeton University Press); A Long Time Coming by Evan Thomas (Public Affairs); The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick (Knopf); Barack Obama by David Maraniss (Simon & Schuster); and Obama Power by Jeffrey Alexander and Bernadette Jaworsky (Wiley). In Reading Obama (2010), James T. Kloppenberg may have written the best book on Barack Obama’s personal and political philosophy, taking into account experience, education, and ethical concerns in Obama’s pursuit of profession and politics. James Kloppenberg cites as influences on Barack Obama a wide range of persons: Roger Boesche, W.E.B. DuBois, Frank Marshall Davis, Ralph Ellison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Reinhold Niebuhr, John Rawls, Alexis de Tocqueville, Roberto Unger, and, among others, William Julius Wilson, Gordon Wood, and Howard Zinn. In Obama Power (2014), the authors Alexander and Jaworsky have given us an examination of Obama’s campaign, administration, and re-election, with a focus on the significance of both his genuine accomplishments and the importance of storytelling in the establishment and maintenance of his reputation. I had not imagined that this man, the child of an American woman of European descent and an African, a white woman and a black man, would bring into being a paradise, but I did think it would be possible for him to speak across the usual lines of demarcation, beyond the old conflicts. Like everyone else, I have been reminded that conflicts die hard: that one person’s ideal resolution is another person’s nightmare.
The Affordable Care Act, the Recovery Act for economic stimulation and infrastructure investments, the Dodd-Frank financial reform, the Auto Industry bailout and restructuring, the Race to the Top education experiments, and college loan reform, environmental projects and regulations, and a fair pay act for women are some of the accomplishments of President Barack Obama’s administration in his first term in office, listed by Jonathan Chait in the November 28, 2011 issue of New York magazine. Chait remarked that liberals are often dissatisfied with their presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Despite his accomplishments, Barack Obama’s approval ratings had taken a dive, something the book writers Alexander and Jaworsky attribute to a failure in storytelling: Barack Obama had been conceived as a transformative healing figure during the original campaign, but once in office the continuing conflict in Washington among partisans put that presumed power in doubt. Obama had to tell a story of his work as half-finished, as that of a well-intentioned and effective man in the midst of a hard, continuing task—and Obama did that. President Obama has been discussing improvements in the economy and more employment, and free community college courses, immigration reform, and closer diplomatic communication with once adversarial nations.
Philosophy, Politics, and Culture: The Humanities and Public Life
The human being—a figure of consciousness, aware and logical and perceptive, changing and growing; a head with eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, atop shoulders and torso with chest and arms, and hips, with organs of regeneration, thighs and legs and feet: a human being is a miracle of existence, the mechanics explainable by science, the mind and spirit understandable in art and philosophy. The human being is heroic and humble, ignorant and intelligent, cheered and burdened by history, and creative, skilled, joyful and sad, the last hope, the last danger. Most of us are torn between good and evil, courage and fear, truth and lie, generosity and selfishness—and it would be strange not to expect our communities and country to have some of the same conflicts—and that is why we have laws and councils and art and philosophy and religion, to help us reconcile those conflicts.
The works of John Stuart Mill, William James, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, Noam Chomsky, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Richard Rorty illuminate the diversity of questions that interest me about human existence, language, knowledge, community, and ethics. Yet, it is impossible to deny that such works—ironically, tragically—enact a conversation that is not typical of the most mundane and recurring human concerns and ruminations. The increasing prominence and value of African-American philosophers such as Michele Moody Adams, Anita Allen, Stephen Carter, Lewis Gordon, Leonard Harris, Tommy Lott, Charles Mills, Lucius Outlaw, Ken Perry, Adrian Piper, Lawrence Thomas, Naomi Zack, and George Yancy helps to assure me that the most serious forms of contemplation know no bounds; and that one must work to bring knowledge to the difficult as well as the everyday when that knowledge promises to illuminate. I have read western and eastern philosophy, but one area of thought I’d like to explore more is African philosophy, the intellectual practice originating in or about Africa, and engaging in analysis, comparison, critique, and drawing on anthropology, history, literature and culture, metaphysics, politics, and reflecting on issues of continent, nation, and diaspora, as well as ethics, law, trauma, and social death: books such as The African Philosophy Reader, edited by P. H. Coetzee and A.P. J. Roux, and African Philosophy: The Essential Readings by Tsenay Serequeberhan; and A Companion to African Philosophy edited by Kwasi Wiredu; and African Philosophy: An Anthology, edited by Emmanuel C. Eze begin to suggest the ideas and issues involved in African philosophy.
Works of philosophy, politics, and cultural commentary have drawn some significant attention in a world that often seems to prefer trash and trivia: including such books as Capital in the Twenty-first Century by Thomas Piketty, and Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement by Sonia Lee and The Latino Generation by Mario Garcia, Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas by Cass Sunstein, and Empires, Nations & Families by Anne Hyde, The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell, Liberalism by Edmund Fawcett, Our Declaration by Danielle Allen, Political Emotions by Martha Nussbaum, Gavin Wrights’ civil rights book Sharing the Prize, Daniel Schulman’s Koch brothers book Sons of Wichita, and The Structure of World History by Kojin Karatani. However the books that caught my attention and appreciation most were: Africa in the American Imagination: Popular Culture, Racialized Identities and African Visual Culture by Carol Magee; Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist edited by Richard J. Powell; Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life by Benjamin Kahan; The Cinema of Richard Linklater: Walk, Don’t Run by Rob Stone; The Critical Pulse, edited by Jeffrey Williams and Heather Steffen; Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution: Voices from Tunis to Damascus, edited by Layla Al-Zubaidi and Matthew Cassel; Film Dialogue, edited by Jeff Jaeckle; Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles M. Blow, Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America by Doran Larson, Green Documentary by Helen Hughes, Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos: Conceptions of the African American West by Michael K. Johnson; How It Feels to Be Freeby Ruth Feldstein; The Humanities and Public Life by Peter Brooks with Hilary Jewett; Lifting My Voice by Barbara Hendricks, Morality for Humans by Mark Johnson, The Price of Progress: The Costs of Inequality by David Dante Troutt, The Red Atlantic by Jace Weaver; Routledge Dictionary of Turkish Cinema by Gonul Donmez-Colin; Stand Up Straight and Sing! By Jessye Norman, Thirteen Ways of Looking at Latino Art by Ilan Stavans and Jorge J.E. Gracia, and Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling by Michel Foucault.
Where does one go if one wants to discuss the arts, philosophy, or political problems and solutions? Where does one go if one wants to discuss socialism or multiculturalism or Palestinians as scapegoats for hundreds of years of European anti-Semitism or Native American history, cultures, and rights or feminism or bisexuality or androgyny? How does one reconcile the fact of genuine intellectual work with a society that values the shallow and sensational? Social institutions circulate polite, edited narratives. Radio, television, and the internet rarely go deep in important matters for large audiences. The truth is that a small, self-selected group of people pursue intellectual work. The Humanities and Public Life, edited by Peter Brooks with Hilary Jewett, published by Fordham University Press in 2014, is a signal summary of American intellectual life: inspired first by the questionable interpretations of laws involving the torture of political prisoners, a conference of intellectuals took on the ethics of reading as a subject, which broadened into a consideration of the place of the humanities in the culture. Increasingly, the humanities—historical, philosophical, literary, and practical studies of human culture in established disciplines—are seen through the lens of a capitalist, utilitarian culture, with a sometimes coercive politics: How can the humanities be justified in terms of profit and desired social impact? Literature, philosophy, and ethics as well as the nature of professionalism, college management, and human rights are affected by a new ethos that hides under the obvious, under business as usual—with business everywhere. The book The Humanities and Public Life features the contributions of Kwame Anthony Appiah, Jonathan Culler, William Germano, Elaine Scarry, Richard Sennett, and Patricia Williams. The humanities put us in touch with beauty, history, and thought. Beautiful things embody balance and symmetry, and help us to move beyond ourselves, and inspire creativity and regeneration. “Literature may be able to diminish real-world injury, and the three attributes of literature—empathy, dispute, beauty—can perhaps be credited with that outcome,” stated Elaine Scarry in “Poetry, Injury, and the Ethics of Reading” (page 47). Patricia Williams demonstrates the multiple ways that an image can be interpreted—as a representation of spirituality or criminality, with or without knowledge and human sympathy—in “The Raw and the Half-Cooked.” Others give further consideration to the burdens of history: “We all know that American history is stained by the appalling treatment of indigenous peoples, but there is a serious question as to how much the familiarity of that knowledge induces its own lethargy,” wonders Jonathan Lear in “The Call of Another’s Words,” sharing his own lasting encounter with the Crow people (page 115).
What is the stimulation of consciousness and conscience, and what is mere consumption? The abdication of intelligence is the abdication of agency, choice, and possibility. “The humanities are not just luxuries to be had once we get a surplus, but one among many other domains crucial to human flourishing and global justice,” wrote David B. Downing in “Geopolitical Translators,” a credo in The Critical Pulse (Columbia University Press, 2012). Yet that affirmation is disputed, sometimes crudely by conservatives and corporate leaders and even by people who think of themselves as liberal or radical activists. The utilitarian can be nothing more than a fig leaf for raging arousal of the anti-intellectual or the mercenary. I am reminded of something Stephen Carter said in his book Civility (Basic Books/Perseus, 1998): “The market pollutes our children, it pollutes our politics…and it pollutes our souls. Capitalism counsels that we should be acquisitive, and lacking alternative sources of meaning, we go ahead and acquire” (page 168). We are enfeebled in our speculations if we cannot—honestly and critically—consider alternative practices, such as socialism: a cooperative economy, with the shared communal ownership of the means of production. Workers can think and make decisions. Communities can shape their own necessary institutions. The promise of democratic socialism—a society of institutions established to meet public needs rather than serve the profit motive—is seldom spoken. Do people want change? Do they want greater freedom, knowledge and power? Are they willing to work or sacrifice for those principles?
Literature, Classic and Contemporary: Imaginative, Passionate, Thoughtful Writing
Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892), a worker, a publisher, a lover and creator of great literature, was a sensual and spiritual man who embraced all of human experience, and the variety of his embraces was a scandal for some people. Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) was a reclusive Massachusetts lady, but she was a reader and thinker and her work was full of the most intense feeling, but a volume of her work was not published until after she died. Whitman and Dickinson are two of the many wonderfully strange parents of American literature. Walt Whitman allowed his passion to become broad, general, absorbed by people and things; and Emily Dickinson allowed her passion to penetrate atmosphere, nature, and thought: both poets required more than a single companion for all that fury.
What do writers do? Imagine, perceive, think, intuit; and, while contemplating their own experiences, writers look at the people around them, and jot down ideas and insight, conversations and scenes, and expand on their notes, and read models and peers and do additional research, and attempt a rough draft, and expand and revise that, and then they revise that, and revise that. Writers taken on a discipline that is centered on exploring feelings and ideas that others discount or evade, often regarding experiences that are central to our lives. Artists are often cursed and slandered, while living and after death: anarchist, bastard, bitch, bum, dyke, fag, fantasist, freak, hack, hobo, ideologue, madman, lay-about, narcissist, parasite, sellout, spinster, subversive, suspect, traitor, witch, whore. The problem may be that art requires sacrifices and endows one with peculiar wealth—the sacrifices or deprivations may be seen, but the wealth is usually intellectual or spiritual, which cannot be seen—except in art, about which many people—despite their assertions—do not give a damn. There is rarely protection or safety for an artist. Who wants to live as an object lesson, a figure of mistaken perspective and practice? Who would imagine that putting pen to paper or paint to canvas would be so dangerous? Every completion of an article, essay, poem, story, or novel of quality is a triumph of creativity and intelligence over chaos and insignificance.
The arts are forms of experience, thinking, imagination, feeling and craft, forms of transformation and transcendence that arrive in the shape of a perceptible thing. Many people like entertainment—fewer people like art, which has its rigors and requirements, and demands serious attention. There is need for more cultural translators, synthesizers, and promoters: connecting foreign and national culture, connecting regional cultures, connecting minority cultures. Although the work of the arts is intellectual and spiritual, they too have been seen in terms of commodity: and, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that the culture industries brought $504.4 billion to the American domestic economy in 2011, or 3.25 percent of the gross national product; and on January 12, 2015 the NEA issued a statement saying that middle class found the arts a focus of social activity, and appreciated learning new things and celebrating heritage, but that sometimes time and distance made participation difficult. The statement also said that the arts brought in $698 billion in the American domestic economy in 2012, or 4.32 of the gross domestic product. It is sad to think that dollars and cents are the only way in which the arts can be justified to some people. There usually seems little public discussion of depth regarding the arts outside of the circles of people who create, promote, sell, or critique them. Yet artists know and are willing to admit that the appearance of respectable responsibility—a nine to five job, and marriage—can embody a betrayal of self, intelligence, passion, skill, and talent; and the appearance of irresponsibility can be the exact opposite: a pursuit of thought, creativity, and purpose, the fulfilment of self and the commitment to a perspective and project of communal significance.
The indifference of the world first concentrates and consecrates the will and purpose of the artist and thinker, then begins to exhaust will and purpose—leaving the individual with a sense of beleaguered mission. It becomes easy to be cynical about other people and their lack of depth, intelligence, and understanding. How does one renew the sense of one’s work as being part of a necessary, and ongoing conversation—or is that work to be just one more object in a world of objects? Human genius is used and misused for mundane matters every day—that is why much of the world works beautifully and well despite our frustrations, disappointments, and complaints. Artists and intellectuals are not satisfied with a life of frustrations, disappointments, and complaints; and they create solutions in the form of their works.
What can I say to someone who refuses to discuss intelligent work, but insists on talking about his usually inconsequential personal life, or the most transient public trivia? Nothing. The history of literature is great, large, and diverse; and John Sutherland presents some of in A Little History of Literature (Yale, 2013), a wonderful charming, concise commentary that was exactly what I needed when I wanted to discuss Shakespeare with someone and wanted to think more about modern British writers such as E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf but was too far away from anyone with whom I sensibly could have such conversations. Reading the book was like having that desired conversation. It was a pleasure to be reminded of much I had not thought of in a long time—of Chaucer and Baudelaire, and to be reminded of the great effect of admired writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison. Of course, many of the writers, many of the essayists and poets and novelists, I care about are not mentioned. It is easy to think of the writers I like and respect: the essayists Montaigne and James Baldwin, Jacques Barzun, Albert Camus, Emil Cioran, William Jelani Cobb, Gerald Early, T.S. Eliot, Addison Gayle, Bell Hooks, June Jordan, Pauline Kael, Lionel Mitchell, Albert Murray, Adrienne Rich, Susan Sontag, Alan Stone, Greg Tate, Lionel Trilling, and Gore Vidal. Admired poets: W.H. Auden and Rainer Rilke and Yehuda Amichai, Anna Akhmatova, Gwendolyn Brooks, Constantine Cavafy, Emily Dickinson, Zbigniew Herbert, Langston Hughes, LeRoi Jones, June Jordan, John Koethe, Denise Levertov, Federico Garcia Lorca, Audre Lorde, Robert Lowell, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Octavio Paz, Adrienne Rich, and C.K. Williams.
And the novelists and novels: James Baldwin’s Another Country (and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone); Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower; Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; Caryl Phillips’ Cambridge; Gayl Jones’ Corregidora; William Demby’s The Catacombs; David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident; John O. Killens The Cotillion (and Youngblood); John Steinbeck’s East of Eden; John Cheever’s Facolner; Percival Everett’s Frenzy (and God’s Country, Watershed, and Glyph); Henry James’s The Golden Bowl; William Dean Howells’ A Hazard of New Fortunes; James Purdy’s House of the Solitary Maggot (and Mourners Below and On Glory’s Course); Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift; Andre Gide’s The Immoralist; Wallace Thurman’s Infants of the Spring, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Margaret Walker’s Jubilee, Edward P. Jones’ The Known World; Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying (and In My Father’s House); Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills; Hal Bennett’s Lord of Dark Places; Theophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle du Maupin; Michael Thomas’s Man Gone Down; Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate; Christopher Isherwood’s A Meeting at the River; James Purdy’s, Richard Wright’ Native Son; Alice Walker’s Meridian; Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters; Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale; Henry Van Dyke’s The Piano; Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray; Stendhal’sThe Red and the Black; Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters; Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (and Paradise); Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; Herve Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save Me; D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love; Dawn Powell’s The Wicket Pavilion. What do writers do? Writers practice, preserve, and promote individuality; and writers create, curate, and conserve cultural tradition: the tradition of art, beauty, mind, and spirit that holds us up.
It is almost impossible to think of something as very good and not want it for yourself. Growing up in Louisiana, I was interested in stories, lyrics, and magazines, and in writing, drawing, photography, music, nature, wilderness, hunting, baseball, baking, Greek myths, science facts, and history. There were books around. My mother, a woman of melancholia and some wit, was a fervent reader, a gardener, a seamstress, and a housewife; and my stepfather, a rough man with some friendly and scary moments, was a factory worker and not much of a reader. My father, a suave man juggling two women, lived in a Kew Gardens studio and was a machinist in a Manhattan printing firm, and was a selective reader (I recall him sounding impressed when he told me of reading about Gordon Liddy’s endurance test—burning his own flesh. I laughed: I thought life offered us more demanding challenges on an ordinary day). I enjoyed the writing workshops I participating in at the New School for Social Research, House of Poets in Harlem, the Poetry Project, and the East Village Writers Workshop. (The only relationship that can offer a writer mutuality is that with an attentive, intelligent reader.) The best thing for me was being in one of the world’s great cities: New York—I loved the art galleries and museums, the libraries and parks, the restaurants, the record stores, repertory film theaters, and sidewalks filled with handsome boys and beautiful girls. New York is a city of excitement and experiment, of stress and struggle: and I experimented and struggled. I had clerical and administrative jobs, editing and writing jobs, in banks, bookstores, libraries, schools, publishing firms, and advocacy groups; a fragmented and frustrating half-career. I wanted to express more of my own emotion and political perspective in my hired writing work when I was younger—and as I became older I realized that did not matter: what was more important was to see a subject whole and describe it accurately; and—inevitably—my perspective would be expressed in how I described the subject. Essays, fiction, poetry, and other forms—mine. Much that has been written has not been published—and much remains to be written. What do writers do? Writers write.
In recent months, the works of long fiction—the novels—that have won attention and admiration includes: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell; A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James; Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill; Euphoria by Lily King; Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng; Hiding in Plain Sight by Nuruddin Farah; Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian; Ruby by Cynthia Bond; Song of the Shank by Jeffery Renard Allen; and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
“My mind is part of me / that gets the least rest,” writes Thylias Moss in her verse narrative Slave Moth (2004), which Evie Shockley quotes in her essay “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Slave,” published in Contemporary African American Literature: A Living Canon, edited by Lovalerie King and Shirley Moody-Turner. Poet Thylias Moss focuses on the creativity of an enslaved young woman, an emphasis that Shockley explores—demonstrating the unique value of memory and affirmation as embodied in visual art and objects. The essay is part of a genuinely diverse, wide-ranging anthology that includes Houston Baker on the necessity of bringing a comprehensive and long historical view to the interpretation of Toni Morrison and other African-American writers, and Trudier Harris on teaching literature inspired by current events and history and utilizing a variety of resources to enrich the experience—resources such as news media, essays, film, and personal testimony. Other essays in King and Moody-Turner’sContemporary African American Literature deal with commercialism, hip-hop, lesbian relationships, stereotypes, heroism, comedy, sensuality, social change, integrity, modernity and postmodernity. The anthology features the contributions of scholars and also the fiction writers such Mat Johnson, Alice Randall, and Martha Southgate. For the depth and duration of its intellectual discourse, I have enjoyed and valued Contemporary African American Literature and The Humanities and Public Life and Thirteen Ways of Looking at Latino Art, books that cannot be summarized simply and satisfactorily as they not only articulate ideas but share the process of thought itself.
One of the books that explicates creativity, individuality, and social life is Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life: the book presents celibacy as sexuality; as a choice; as political identity; and as resistance to compulsive sex, among other meanings. I think anyone who has been celibate knows that the state can be boring, frustrating and sad—or serene—or exciting, with one feeling the banked power of sexual desire, full of possibility. The book Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life, written by Benjamin Kahan, considers diverse persons and their works: W.H. Auden, Emily Dickinson, Gustave Flaubert, Margaret Fuller, Langston Hughes, Henry James, Marianne Moore, and, among others, Andy Warhol. The most interesting to me may be James and Auden. Henry James saw the celibate as advancing civilization with his cultural attentions—and explored that theme in his novel The Bostonians. Auden, as citizen and exile, as ascetic and aesthete, as lover of men and husband to a lesbian wife, as poet and interpreter, thought and wrote about the price of citizenship and the use of celibacy as exonerating evidence in homophobic times. In Auden’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest—Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror—different kinds of citizenship and artistry are examined, with repression posed against liberty, and the poetic in contrast to the real. Auden points out how identification of an other unifies people, how fundamental borders are for self-awareness. It is hard to tell the righteous from the tyrannical. For Auden, celibacy is sometimes genuine, sometimes disguise. It is a mode of potential and actual agency, energy, eroticism, contemplation, and reconciliation.
Writers keep writing; and, if lucky, published. The novels scheduled for 2015, as of now, are: Mary Costello’s Academy Street; Elisa Albert’s After Birth; Megan Bergman’s Almost Famous Women; John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries; Garth Hallberg’s City on Fire; Asali Solomon’s Disgruntled; Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child; T.C. Boyle’s The Harder They Come; Erika Robuck’s The House of Hawthorne; Nell Zink’s Mislaid; Matt Sumell’s Making Nice; and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout; (Matt Sumell’s book is made up of linked stories, but as they are connected by character and event they form a coherent whole, a novel.)
Beautiful Objects, Some Meaningful; the work of Elizabeth Catlett, Richmond Barthé,and Archibald Motley Jr, and Latino Art
Painting and Sculpture
There are some fine things in the world: among them, Alfa Romeo cars, apples, airplanes, bananas, Benin gold, carnations, Cartier watches, Philippe Hiquily chairs, Chanel suits, clouds, Harry Winston diamonds, eagles, fireflies, French chandeliers, giraffes, Gobelins’ tapestries, lakes, Karl Springer floor lamps, lions, mountains, oak trees, oranges, Oscar de la Renta gowns, pecans, pelicans, rivers, roses, Shinola bicycles, streams, sunlight, trains, trout, tulips, Turkish rugs, Louis Vuitton luggage, wintergreen trees, and zebras. Yet, art is a different kind of object, one infused with human perception, experience, feeling, and thought: it is an object that can speak to us in a language we understand.
Art awakens and refreshes our attention and consciousness: What are the colors, feelings, forms, textures, thought, and vision in a work of art? Does the work articulate an idea, tell a story, present an image, or embody a virtue? Does it carry forth or revise an established tradition? Does it intervene in current events or public discourses? Does it create a place of contemplation and serenity for the observer? Are we in an age in which art gives up beauty, knowledge, and social vision? Many of us have our doubts about contemporary art, finding it to be too much focused on the recycling of detritus at worst, or social protest at best, rather than on the creation of beauty or the celebration of nature or human life. Some of the significant art exhibits of 2014 were: Sigmar Polke’s “Alibis, 1963-2010,” at the Museum of Modern Art; and “Death Becomes Her,” featuring mourning clothes at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute; “Here and Elsewhere,” a program of international artists, at the New Museum in New York; Richard Prince’s “Instagram Pictures” at New York’s Gagosian; Klara Liden’s “It’s Complicated” at Reena Spaulings in New York; the “Italian Futurism” show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York; Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles; Cameron’s “Song for the Witch” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn; and Swoon’s “Submerged Motherlands” at the Brooklyn Museum.
Exhibits on the calendar for the coming months are: “Ancient Colombia” at the Los Angeles County Museum; “Botticelli to Braque” at the de Young Museum in San Francisco; “China: Through the Looking Glass” at the Metropolitan’s Costume Institute; and “Turner: Painting Set Free” at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. There will be also a Pasolini exhibit in Berlin, and a Rembrandt exhibit in London.
My personal favorites among artists at the moment are some whose works I have known for years and years and others whose works are new to me: Charles Alston, Edward Bannister, Dawoud Bey, Mary Cassatt, Elizabeth Catlett, Cezanne, Edward Clark, Eldzier Cortor, Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas, Aaron Douglas, Thomas Eakins, Eric Fischl, Gaugin, Sam Gilliam, Childe Hassam, Palmer Hayden, Barkley Hendricks, Edward Hopper, Jasper Johns, William H. Johnson, Rashid Johnson, Wilfredo Lam, Hughie Lee-Smith, Leonardo, Norman Lewis, Glenn Ligon, Reginald Madison, Edna Manley, Kerry James Marshall, Michelangelo, Monet, Berthe Morisot, Gordon Parks, Picasso, Rose Piper, Camille Pissarro, Martin Puryear, Rembrandt, Faith Ringgold, Larry Rivers, John Robinson, John Singer Sargent, Raymond Saunders, Henry Tanner, Mickalene Thomas, Bob Thompson, Diego Velazquez, Carrie Mae Weems, and Kehinde Wiley.
Born in 1915 Washington D.C, but a longtime resident (and naturalized citizen) of Mexico, the artist and teacher Elizabeth Catlett studied art at Howard University, graduating with honors; and Catlett studied with the artists Grant Wood and Ossip Zadkine at the University of Iowa, and the Art Students League in New York. Elizabeth Catlett was married first to Charles White, then to Francisco Mora, both artists. Some of Catlett’s work reflects the hard, simple life of African-Americans, particularly of women in her lithographs; and some of Catlett’s sculpture, seeming both classical and modern, embodies references to Africa. I first saw Elizabeth Catlett’s work years ago and, then, a personal acquaintance of mine had some of Catlett’s work in a Washington Heights apartment; but I came back to Catlett recently while listening to jazz musician Rufus Reid’s Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project, which has elements of blues and the elegance and suspense of a good and gorgeous film.
Elizabeth Catlett is part of an ongoing tradition of artists of color, including Edmonia Lewis, Meta Warrick Fuller, Laura Wheeler Waring, Alma Thomas, Augusta Savage, Lois Mailou Jones, Rose Piper, Betye Saar, Artis Lane, Faith Ringgold, Lorraine O’Grady, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Phoebe Beasley, Alison Saar, Lorna Simpson, Ellen Gallagher, and Mickalene Thomas.
“It has taken a long time to find out technique was the main thing to learn from art schools. It’s so important—technique—how to do things well. It’s the difference between offering our beautiful people art and offering them ineptitude,” Elizabeth Catlett is quoted as saying in scholar Samella Lewis’s book African American Art and Artists (University of California Press, 2003; page 134). That book entry that summarizes Catlett’s curiosity, adventures in Mexico, collaborations with other artists, suspicion of art galleries, and concern for social justice. Samella Lewis specifies certain works—the sculpture Pensive, and lithograph Negro es Bello (Black is Beautiful), linocut Malcolm Speaks for Us—as being particularly distinguished.
Richmond Barthé (1901 – 1989), was a gifted, recognized artist, shy and social, sensual and spiritual, independent and supported by privileged folk, successful and vulnerable, an American, and a gay black man, someone who knew what liberty and purpose meant. I had known the sculpture of Richmond Barthé: elegant, lean, smooth, dark, detailed and suggesting motion, sensuality, and thought—but, until very lately I had not known of the book published about him, Margaret Rose Vendryes’ study Barthé: A Life in Sculpture (Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2008), a beautiful, well-researched book that gathers the facts and produces understanding of a very distinguished artist, though I regret how much time the scholar spends imposing current political concerns on the account of his past life. (The closet is a banal symbol, especially for the early 1900s: if everyone is in the same space, it is not a closet—it is the world—and few people during the early part of the twentieth century discussed their sex lives in polite company, which is why certain writers such as D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and Jean Genet were controversial—and they were writing fiction.) With color illustrations of drawings, paintings, and sculpture, notes, bibliography, and index, the book Barthé: A Life in Sculpture by Margaret Rose Vendryes is fiercely honest and intelligent, making the case for attention to Barthé based on artistic merit. Richmond Barthé was a Creole boy with Louisiana roots but born in Mississippi, a Roman Catholic inspired by church art who spent time as a youth in New Orleans and was lucky to find encouraging mentors and supporters. Richmond Barthé, studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, and made a strong impression at Chicago’s Negro in Art festival. Barthé, was a modernist, bringing knowledge, technique, and feeling to his work, informed by Africa and Europe. Yet, Barthé would become an inheritor of the Harlem Renaissance legacy of pride and success; and he became an acquaintance in New York of Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, Countee Cullen, Bruce Nugent, and Harold Jackman. Barthé considered his best work “The Mother,” (1934), a sculpture in which a mother tends her lynched son, as Mary tended Jesus; “Come Unto Me” (1947), a portrait of a tall, fit strong Jesus in full plain dress, and “The Awakening of Africa” (1959), a reclining black male nude, serious, possibly agitated, beginning to rise.
Archibald Motley Jr had been one of Richmond Barthé’s instructors, but Motley’s work was very different. Motley (1891 – 1981) painted scenes focused on romance, music, drinking, and forms of pleasure, set on city streets and in dance clubs, in a bright, expressive vernacular style. The book Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, edited by Richard J. Powell, is a large scholarly picture book with generous color illustrations of a wide range of paintings and black-and-white documentary photographs, featuring individual essays by David Driskell, Amy Mooney, Davarian Baldwin, Olivier Meslay, and Richard Powell as well as a life chronology, exhibition list, and bibliography, published by Duke University Press in 2014. Some of the most interesting Motley works are the rare ones: “Portrait of My Grandmother” (1922), a simple, touching realistic view of age and exhaustion; and “The Octoroon Girl” (1925), showing a conservative and somber young woman of taste. What a bounty we have had.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at Latino Art by literary scholar Ilan Stavans and philosopher Jorge Gracia is a series of dialogues about art, thought, and society, in which Ilan Stavans and Jorge Gracia discuss how words help to create the world, and express the self; and the centrality of conversation in philosophy, with knowledge identified, shared, and refined, endlessly refined. The artists the two elegant, sensitive thinkers Stavans and Gracia consider in Thirteen Ways of Looking at Latino Art (Duke Univ. Press, 2014) are: Einar and James de la Torre, Maria Brito, Andres Serrano, Francisco Oller, Maria Yampolsky, Carmen Lomas Garza, Bear_Tck, Jose Bedia, Luis Cruz Azaceta, Martin Ramirez, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, and Adal, Latino artists of varying countries. Gracia sees the Americas, particularly Latin America, as a region giving birth to new peoples. The art the two men, Gracia and Stavans, look at embody that multiplicity, with a plenitude of styles: complex and simple, original and derivative, traditional and modern, local and international, realist and surreal; and the scholars’ concerns are philosophical. Considering Socrates, that master of speculative dialogue, Jorge Gracia says, “Socrates is without a doubt the epitome of the philosopher, and his life is the paradigm of the philosophical life. What did he do? He was sort of a bum” (page 4). In discussing Maria Brito’s oil painting “Conversation” (1984), with its spare modern look, featuring three identical persons facing each other, seeming to wear masks, Ilan Stavans speaks of how easily identity can shift. Francisco Oller’s “El Veloria (The Wake)” (1893) commemorates a child’s death in a provincial island scene, suggesting grief and caste stratification. Looking at Carmen Garza’s oil and gold leaf painting “Heaven and Hell” (1991), in which the brightly covered top half features dancing couples, and the dark bottom half features workers toiling near several fires, the division between the two seem aesthetic, financial, geographic, and spiritual. Luis Cruz Azaceta’s acrylic work “Slaughter” (2010) shows war as a landscape of stacked, butchered limbs, an elemental image, cruel and true. Ilan Stavans and Jorge Gracia bring rich images and all kinds of ideas and perspectives to bear in their stimulating conversation.
Cinema, and Its Traditions, Criticism, and Future
The film Words and Pictures (2014), directed by Fred Schepisi, is about the significance of literature and visual art and those who live and work in these fields, and it is focused on two teachers, a literature teacher and an art teacher, who compete, then become friends then lovers. It is a film of clarity, efficiency, and intelligence—but, strangely, can be mistaken for something else—a much more sentimental work. It is refreshing to see such a film in a world in which so much culture is clumsy and dumb or expert and dumb. The leads are attractive and it I shard to imagine better performances: Clive Owen is the literature teacher, Jack Marcus, a passionately lyrical man and frustrated writer who drinks; and Juliette Binoche is the art teacher, Dina Delsanto, a fiercely direct woman with an illness making movement difficult.
It is rare to get truly transcendent films featuring African-Americans, films that do not limit the range of talk, thought, and vision allowed its characters, films that see them as beautifully and fully human. American society places black men on the margins of society—and then punishes them for having a marginal sensibility. What kind of sensibility would anyone have who has little or no access to the institutions or resources of the leading culture? The film Fruitvale Station is about a flawed, struggling black man and his fateful encounter with policemen who looked at him and saw danger. It is a film that I respect rather than like. Fruitvale Station (2013), directed by Ryan Coogler, and featuring Marlon B. Jordan as Oscar Grant, Octavia Spencer as his mother Wanda, and Melonie Diaz as Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina, has some good scenes of city and neighborhood, convincing in their familiarity, and the story we are shown is as believable—it, in fact, is a true story. The lead character is an ordinary young man who had been involved in the drug trade, and is trying to get his life back in balance but has lost a supermarket job. The new year is coming and Oscar wants to celebrate; and on while traveling with his girlfriend and other acquaintances Oscar encounters the police. I do not like the central character or the story (I rather would see the films of Paul Robeson, Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover, Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Don Cheadle, or Terrence Howard; or consider the example of Booker T. Washington, Alain Locke, Claude McKay, Ralph Bunche, Jackie Robinson, Andrew Young, Colin Powell, Arthur Ashe, Bill Duke, or Charles Burnett). Yet, everything convinces: atmosphere and situation and scenes and transitions. The film Fruitvale Station is likely to grow in stature with every passing year: it is skillfully made but it is its tragic subject—the lack of respect and love for black male life—that is likely to make it into a text of lasting resonance (which is to say: we refuse to learn the lesson it teaches).
Is tragedy fate or chance? The downward pressure on the poor is formidable and forces the poor to be, say, and do things they would rather not do—but the force of the pressure is such that the resulting attitudes, feelings, and gestures appear natural, inevitable; and they are nature, but rather than being natural for these particular people, they are native to the state of poverty itself: desperation, impatience, need, fear, rage, and recklessness. Yet, although the state of the poor is not good, we imagine it as even worse than it is: somehow we imagine the poor not only without money and things, but without opportunity, without knowledge, language, and virtues, without convictions, personality, and voice—without anything but appetite and need. What this means is that we believe that money provides—that it buys—absolutely everything of value.
How does a film engage and fresh the senses? How does it use its own elements—image, movement, and sound; character, dialogue, gesture, story, plot, attention, observation, focus; and time—to create a thought, insight, or argument? Does one feel introduced to new characters and situations immersed in a different world? Is one’s understanding enlarged?
There have been great works from a wide range of filmmakers, here and abroad, past and present: Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson, Ingmar Bergman, Charlie Chaplin, Joel and Ethan Coen, Alfonso Cuaron, Julie Dash, Carl Dreyer, Ava DuVernay, Sergei Eisenstein, Jean-Luc Godard, Spike Jonze, Abbas Kiarostami, Akira Kurosawa, Ang Lee, Richard Linklater, Ernest Lubitsch, Terrence Malick, Steve McQueen, Christopher Nolan, Satyajit Ray, Jean Renoir, Walter Salles, Julian Schnabel, Martin Scorsese, Ousmane Sembene, Abderrahmane Sissako, Steven Soderbergh, Elia Suleiman, the Wachowski siblings, Orson Welles, Michael Winterbottom, and Wong Kar Wai. And, recently, some of the most acclaimed films of year 2014 have been: American Sniper, Beyond the Lights, Birdman, Boyhood, Citizenfour, Dear White People, Edge of Tomorrow, Gloria, Gone Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Inherent Vice, Interstellar, Leviathan, Locke, Love is Strange, Mr. Turner, Only Lovers Left Alive, Selma, Still Alice, Tim’s Vermeer, The Two Faces of January, and Wild Man.
Two films that appeared late in the year 2014 have been by women and have garnered a lot of attention, and compelled us to think again about the place of women in cinema: Selma by Ava DuVernay, and Unbroken by Angelina Jolie, both of whom have done very good work before—DuVernay with I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere and Jolie with In the Land of Blood and Honey. We, filmgoers, are reminded that there have been many women who have, especially in the last few decades, created very good work: Chantal Akerman, Gillian Armstrong, Andrea Arnold, Dorothy Arzner, Jacqueline Audry, Susanne Bier, Kathryn Bigelow, Catherine Breillat, Jane Campion, Gurinder Chadha, Tina Gordon Chism, Lisa Cholodenko, Sofia Coppola, Julie Dash, Julie Delpy, Claire Denis, Maya Deren, Germaine Dulac, Marguerite Duras, Shana Feste, Debra Granik, Alice Guy-Blaché, Tanya Hamilton, Sanaa Hamri, Mary Harron, Agnieszka Holland, Nicole Holofcener, Tamara Jenkins, Diane Kurys, Kasi Lemmons, Phyllida Lloyd, Ida Lupino, Darnell Martin, Deepa Mehta, Marta Meszaros, Mira Nair, Kimberly Peirce, Euzhan Palcy, Lynne Ramsay, Sarah Polley, Sally Potter, Kelly Reichardt, Lone Scherfig, Barbra Streisand, Julie Taymor, Margarethe von Trotta, Liv Ullmann, Agnes Varda, Lina Wertmuller, and Susanna White.
One of the wondering things about film is the sense of being overwhelmed by image and sound and feeling and thought, the whole seductive, sumptuous experience. Musicals can provide that sensation better than many films. It has been a good year for films featuring music, with Beyond the Lights and Into the Woods. Into the Woods features Anna Kendrick and Meryl Streep. Neither reminds us much of the classic Hollywood musicals, but it has been a long time since many films have done so. One of my favorite films is An American in Paris, featuring Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, and Nina Foch. Other film musicals I recall are Cabin in the Sky, Funny Girl, King Creole, Princess Tam, Singin’ in the Rain, Top Hat, West Side Story, and The Wizard of Oz. And Bird, The Bodyguard, Burlesque, Cabaret, Cadillac Ranch, Chicago, Evita, Funny Face, Hair, Lady Sings the Blues, Mo Better Blues, Ray, Rent, The Rose, Saturday Night Fever, A Star is Born, Velvet Goldmine, and Yentl.
The films that some cinema lovers are now looking forward to include: Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria; Glenn Ficarra’s and John Requa’s Focus; Aleksei German’s Hard to be a God; Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise; the Wachowski siblings’ Jupiter Ascending; George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road; Ridley Scott’s The Martian; Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth; Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland; and Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck. (Will the names of any of these films change by the time they get to theaters? It could happen.)
The writers and books on film that I find myself coming back to include Pauline Kael (For Keeps) and Mark Reid (Black Lenses, Black Voices) and James Baldwin (The Devil Finds Work), Jacqueline Bobo (Black Women Film & Video Artists), Donald Bogle (Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks), Hamid Dabashi (Dreams of a Nation), Manthia Diawara (Black American Cinema), Gonul Donmez-Colin (Routledge Dictionary ofTurkish Cinema) Adam Goudsouzian (Sidney Poitier), Ed Guerrero (Framing Blackness), Bell Hooks (Reel to Real), Phyllis R. Klotman (Screenplays of the African American Experience), Paula Massood (Black City Cinema), Jonathan Rosenbaum (Essential Cinema), P. Adams Sitney (Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000), Toby Talbot (The New Yorker Theater), Clyde Taylor (The Mask of Art), Francois Truffaut (The Films in My Life), Michele Wallace (Dark Designs and Visual Culture), Robert Warshow (The Immediate Experience) and Armond White (The Resistance).
Among the impressive new and recent books on cinema, there are Green Documentary by Helen Hughes, Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos: Conceptions of the African American West by Michael K. Johnson; and The Cinema of Richard Linklater. The value of The Cinema of Richard Linklater has been increased with the addition of Boyhood (2014) and Before Midnight (2013) to Linklater’s oeuvre, which includes It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988), Slacker (1991), Dazed and Confused(1993), The Newton Boys (1998), Tape (2001), The School of Rock (2003), A Scanner Darkly (2006), Me and Orson Welles (2008). Richard Linklater has the practicality and philosophical curiosity that might be considered a singular part of the literate American sensibility. As a westerner and a southerner, a Texan, the Austin native Linklater has a unique perspective—idiosyncratically patriotic and critical, rooted in region but widely and wildly expansive, with a simultaneous interest in the present, the future, and the past, and interpreting the present as a dynamic connecting link. Richard Linklater’s planning, script, and revision, and his process of rehearsal and improvisation create the live feel of his films. Linklater’s Slacker (1991), coexistent with Douglas Coupland’s Generation X and Nirvana’s Nevermind, showed disenfranchisement as resistance. The respect for the inner life of disrespected people is an essential part of Dazed and Confused (1993). His characters often choose not to participate in the established order. Linklater himself, perceived as independent, has juggled funding sources in order to make his films.
Richard Linklater has been contributed to a genuine American cinema. There are other films that tell us something important about the country in which we live, and its people: among them, The Age of Innocence, All the President’s Men, At Any Price, Bella, The Best Years of Our Lives, Brokeback Mountain, Cesar Chavez, Claudine, Daughters of the Dust, A Day without a Mexican, Dr. Strangelove, Don’t Let Me Drown, Edge of the City, For Colored Girls, From Here to Eternity, Fruitvale Station, Get on the Bus, Glory, and Good Night, and Good Luck, and Grapes of Wrath, Green Zone, Heaven’s Gate, High Noon, In the Valley of Elah, Inherit the Wind, Inside Job, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Last of the Mohicans, Lincoln, Lions for Lambs, The Loving Story, Margin Call, Matewan, Nashville, The New World, Philadelphia, Ragtime, Red State, Reds, Ride with the Devil, Rosewood, Sankofa, Smoke Signals, To Kill a Mockingbird, Wild River, Winter’s Bone, The Wolf of Wall Street.
Music: Classic, Contemporary, and Experimental Sounds; Sarah Vaughan, Rufus Reid, James Booker, Anoushka Shankar, Mohammed Fairouz, Annie Lennox, and Terence Trent D’Arby
Sometimes we listen to and love music, but do not think much of sharing it: it is a private experience. Sometime we want to share it, but distraction or exhaustion or trouble makes that difficult or impossible. There is some very strong music that I heard in the last year or more, but, for various reasons, I have not said much about the works: BluesAmericana by Keb Mo; Comet, Come to Meby Meshell Ndegeocello; East End Sojourn by the Verve Jazz Ensemble; Floating by the Fred Hersch Trio; Heroes & Misfits by Kris Bowers; I Will Not Be Afraid by Caroline Rose; In the Shadows of No Towers by Mohammed Fairouz; Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill by Audra MacDonald; A Life Worth Living by Marc Broussard; Mutations by Vijay Iyer; Nostalgia by Annie Lennox; Prospect Hill by Dom Flemons; Quiet Pride by Rufus Reid; Refuse to Lose by Jarekus Singleton; Return to Zooathalon by Sananda Maitreya; Traces of You by Anoushka Shankar; Turn Blue by the Black Keys; Upside Down Mountain by Conor Oberst; and What I Heard by Oliver Lake.
Why is music loved by almost all of us? Does music create beauty, feeling, and thought where there was chaos or mere silence? Does the music suggest something about the relationships of people and objects in society, the pace and rhythm and tensions of an age? Yes, yes, and yes again. Some of the best albums of 2014 are said to be: Jason Moran’s All Rise, a Fats Waller tribute; Theo Parrish’s American Intelligence; David Krakauer’s The Big Picture; D’Angelo’s Black Messiah; Azealia Banks’ Broke with Expensive Taste; The Afghan Whig’s Do to the Beast; Nickel Creek’s A Dotted Line; Damon Albarn’s Everyday Roberts; Ambrose Akinmusire’s The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint; Wadada Leo Smith’s The Great Lakes Suite; Faith Evans’ Incomparable; Jack White’s Lazaretto; Mariah Carey’s Me. I’m Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse; Steve Lehman’s Mise En Abime; Parquet Courts’ Sunbathing Animals; Aphex Twin’s Syro; Spoon’s They Want My Soul; and Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead. The gay British balladeer Sam Smith’s collection In the Lonely Hour has opened some ears with its romantic themes and old-fashioned soul sounds. (Men know their own gaze is often aggressive, dominating—more than appreciative—and that is why the homoerotic glance—the gaze of one man by another desiring man—is discomforting: it suggests to the recipient more force than pleasure, a prologue to attack. The acceptance of a homosexual singer as icon suggests an acceptance of ambiguity, greater male comfort with the male gaze.) And, of course, Beyonce’s self-titled last album, which came out in December 2013, and was heard throughout 2014 and featured “Drunk in Love” and “Flawless” and a duet with Drake, “Mine,” and another with Frank Ocean, “Superpower.” Beyonce work is more self-affirming and more sexual than ever. Philosophy is great at positing how human beings are connected on a profound level, but nothing brings people together like pleasure, especially the pleasure found in popular music.
Sarah Vaughan’s singing can be both abstract and luxurious. Vaughan’s Sophisticated Lady: The Duke Ellington Songbook Collection (Pablo/Concord, 2013) is grand, eloquent, and passionate—as Vaughan lengthens and bends notes. Sarah Vaughan, like many great artists, is both personal and impersonal. The daughter of private time musicians, Sarah Lois Vaughan (1924 – 1990) gained momentum with a win at an Apollo Theater competition singing “Body and Soul,” and Vaughan found the enthusiastic support of singer Billy Eckstine, and inspiration in the new music of Charlie Parker. Sarah Vaughan had a unique contralto voice and delivery, able to go deep and wide without losing a certain elegance; and popular songs early in Vaughan’s career were “If You Could See Me Now” and “It’s Magic” and “Misty,” and much later “Send In the Clowns” would become a signature for her.
Sarah Vaughan was an absolutely singular singer; and she played piano too—and wanted her music to have some of the soulful quality of spirituals. The consideration—and embellishments—Vaughan gave to lyrics made her an acquired but addictive taste. (Gunther Schuller called her the greatest vocal artist of the century.) Vaughan was an artist and an entertainer, and her own tastes ranged widely: Doris Day, Mahalia Jackson, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, and Leontyne Price; and Vaughan herself would influence many singers, including Anita Baker and Sade. Sarah Vaughan’s style was and is unique, despite the many singers she has influenced: she is controlled and extravagant, elevated and earthy. “What Am I Here For?” has a wonderful frolicking rhythm on Sophisticated Lady. “Rocks in My Bed” has a blues beat and guitar twang that suggest the closeness of both country music and blues. The controlled intensity of the music and voice is impressive; and the saxophone becomes exuberant. “Everything But You” has humor in its lyric and the musical rhythm is winning too.
Improvisational music artist and composer Rufus Reid’s Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project (Motema, 2014) has blues notes on guitar, quick sharp horn sounds, and rolling piano notes. It has moments of high energy and moments of quiet contemplation. Spanish strings are a nice touch. The wordless singing is, of course, haunting—suggesting memory, feeling, and the unsayable—the elusive things that art can summon. Does every artist have his season? What serenity and success are possible for someone whose instincts, ideas, and inspirations are considered contradictory within the culture he finds himself? What are the standards for a musician drawn to two traditions, traditions considered to be in opposition? James Booker lived those questions. The Piano Prince of New Orleans. The eccentric, tormented pianist and saxophonist James Carroll Booker III (1939 – 1983) was a boy prodigy who played Chopin and Bach and became a Louisiana phenomenon. James Booker appeared on New Orleans radio and recorded with Fats Domino, and performed with Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin; and Booker subsequently received recent attention in the film Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker by Lily Keber. Writer Kevin Warwick in the Chicago Reader observed of the film, “One of many fascinating moments in this 2013 profile of New Orleans piano man James Booker—the self-proclaimed ‘Black Liberace’—occurs early on, when an admiring Harry Connick Jr., perched in front of the keys, visually breaks down Booker’s complex, confluent style. Connick describes it as a ‘French kind of sound with a swing feel to it’” (accessed online May 21, 2014). Booker had lost his left eye when he was struck by an ambulance, a bitter irony, an injury for which he was given morphine, beginning his regrettable encounters with serious drugs. Further: “Wearing a chrome-studded patch over his left eye and donning a funky brocaded military coat or cape, he performed with an improvisational frenzy that made lesser musicians run for cover. A classically trained pianist who was regarded as the equal of such R&B players as Professor Longhair, Tuts Washington, Allen Toussaint, and Jelly Roll Morton, he was a major influence on Dr. John and personally tutored Harry Connick Jr,” according to a Gale Musician Profile (accessed May 21, 2014). Associates often commented on Booker’s great ability to link diverse traditions and modes. James Booker’s collection Classified: Remixed and Expanded (Concord, 2013) is one of the few recordings available during Booker’s life, and features his range—from classical music to blues to jazz to rhythm-and-blues—done with command and humor.
Anoushka Shankar’s album Traces of You (Deutsche Grammophon, 2013) combines east and west, with sitar and a singer of ballads, country, and rock, Shankar’s sister Norah Jones. The collection is balanced, thoughtful, and melancholy. The instrumental music is easily pleasing, even soothing. The music suggests the sonic equivalent of object and field, something that stands within a larger thing: rhythm within drone that one identifies as a source of energy and pleasure. The sitar prodigy, composer, and author Anoushka Shankar had one of the best teachers imaginable, her father Ravi Shankar (she wrote a biography of him: Bapi, The Love of My Life). Some of her recordings are Anoushka (1998), Anourag (2000), Rise (2005) and Breathing Under Water (2007), and Traveller (2011). “She began studying the sitar with her father at the age of seven; in terms of musical lineage, it doesn’t get much more direct. Despite the awkward physical demands of the instrument she took to it with virtuosic flair and was soon touring the world with Ravi. By the time she was in her late teens she was taking on her own solo engagements, and seven albums later she has forged a new path in sitar music, deftly blending ancient raga forms with flamenco, electronica and blues,” wrote Kate Molleson in an April 9th edition of The Herald in Scotland, before an Anoushka Shankar concert of Ravi Shankar music done with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, a meeting of classical traditions. Traces of You contains more tribute to Ravi Shankar, tribute that includes the master’s American daughter, Norah Jones. On the album, there are enough differences in the rhythms to convey range; and the participation of Jones increases the emotion and intimacy.
Mohammed Fairouz’s In the Shadow of No Towers (Naxos, 2013) has quiet and tumult—blaring horns and percussion; quick, intense, loud. The quiet that follows the alarm is extraordinary: absence as presence. The confident order seems a sense of purpose, a marshalling of forces. The sound is a bit archaic—by turns martial and whimsical. The last movement obviously evokes the passage of time. The strings soothe—maybe a suggestion of healing, against a ticking clock. This testament to the turmoil of a great city under attack conjures the remembered violence, the obliteration, and the search for explanations in a debated history. The Naxos album of the young Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz shares space with Philip Glass’s Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra, which begins with great energy and speed and bears the sound of yesterday—but some of the percussion, as the piece continues, seems fresh and immediate (the intense minimalist rhythms). A low rumble is heard—somber, even tense. The rhythm has more volume, more weight, at the beginning of the third movement but contains interesting silences. The concluding section is very much—in energy and speed—a return to the first.
Do women and men bring different things to literature, music, to life? Do we count on men to tell us what happened; and women to counsel us on how we feel about what has happened? Do men give words—and solace—to the pain? Some do. Toni Morrison has spoken of the centrality of artistry, family, and community to black women artists, particularly black women writers: and Morrison has compared the inclination of black men to be focused on the opposition of white society, particularly white men, with the self-authorization of black women. I thought of that comparison when looking at the memoirs by the classical music singers Jessye Norman (Stand Up Straight and Sing!) and Barbara Hendricks (Lifting My Voice) and the French horn man Robert Lee Watt (The Black Horn). Although the women do acknowledge opposition and how they faced it, they focus on their own more fundamental experiences—feelings, thoughts, and activities—and relation to family, friends, colleagues, and art, while Watt’s book emphasizes, apart from his commitment to craft, the opposition surmounted and the seduction of women. The musician Herbie Hancock’s book, Possibilities, written with Lisa Dickey, presents a more complete though not perfect portrait of an African-American male artist’s life—with creativity, love, spirituality, and a surprising weakness, addiction: the indulgence of pure appetite and false need. Is wisdom anything but the intelligent management of one’s life, pursuit of useful skill and work, pleasant relations with others, and the accepted, easy presence of joy? How many of us match that standard?
American popular music has long been international; and Annie Lennox, who first made music with her partner Dave Stewart before creating her own great solo work, has been influenced by American music for a long time. Annie Lennox has been listening to an older form of American popular music—and with Nostalgia, she presents a selection of now classic songs, in the jazz and blues as well as popular tradition. It is an earnest and elegant presentation of American standards, including: “Georgia on My Mind,” “I Put a Spell on You,” “Summertime,” “I Cover the Waterfront,” “Strange Fruit,” “God Bless the Child,” “The Nearness of You,” and “Mood Indigo.” Intense, and self-dramatizing, even a bit scary, is “I Put a Spell on You.” And, “Summertime” has grandeur, though it is basically just voice and piano. “God Bless the Child” is strong too. The waltzing “You Belong to Me” creates a leisurely atmosphere—nostalgic and solitary, but pleasant. Something East European can be heard in the music of “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” It’s a melancholy song: “I can’t make you open your heart, but I can dream, can’t I?” Annie Lennox’s voice seems a little brassy in “Mood Indigo.” The album Nostalgia does not have the variety or the sustained power of Lennox’s best work but it does conjure a certain thoughtfulness and affirms—easily—musical tradition.
I first heard the work of Terence Trent D’Arby many years ago—and have remained curious about him. Terence Trent D’Arby’s Greatest Hits (Columbia/Sony, 2002) is a collection with authority, honesty, and sexuality; and one hears in his “Wishing Well” a groove-driven song that manages at once to be dark and cheerily sensual. There is a joyousness to “If You Let Me Stay” as well, coupled with grittiness. Drive, energy sensuality and sensitivity—different colors and qualities—can be heard in “Sign Your Name.” A fast gospel rhythm breaks into the soft ballad “Elevators & Hearts.” There is also a blues version of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel.” There is something Beatlesque about the different musical references in “The Birth of Maude,” which includes aspects of the English music hall and American country music. An improvisational quality shapes Terence Trent D’Arby’s singing, which has impressive range in “To Know Someone Deeply Is to Know Someone Softly,” a tender interpretation. Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma,” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” are also performed—D’Arby’s salute to tradition, a salute of distinction and persuasion. Terence Trent D’Arby music is faithful, intelligent, and lively. D’Arby’s recent collection Return to Zooathalon is a generous collection of imaginative, rhythmic songs, songs of delicacy, soul, and wildness, with subjects both mundane and mythic. One hears congas and guitars and soon hears that the music is more rock than rhythm-and-blues. Terence Trent D’Arby, who took the name Sananda Maitreya when he was 33, issues in music a comment on nostalgia that is, by turns, scathing and sympathy in a song on Return to Zooathalon, in which his style seems expansive and explosive: “Dancing with Mr. Nostalgia.” The direction of the long album Return to Zooathalon (Treehouse, 2013) is so obviously and raucously self-authorized that I find myself wondering if Sananda Maitreya sounds free or merely solitary; and yet the music does not have the kind of monotony or thinness that marks self-indulgent work or that confirms the musician is playing all the instruments himself. Sananda Maitreya has one song about New Mexico, and another in which Sananda says he has never met a camel that he did not like—which sounds very strange and oddly reassuring, a relief that he has gone beyond clichés of love and toughness in a lot of popular music. The songs move from comic humor and pastiche to regret and pleas for mercy. “Return to Zooathalon and find your family tree,” Sananda Maitreya sings in the title song, return “to find your joy,” complaining that someone has taken his avatar and made the music go away. “I’m free to be whatever I want to be,” Sananda sings in “Free to Be.” Sananda Maitreya is a musician who refuses to be bored and does not want to bore. His is the work of a speculative mind. One is reminded that the abdication of intelligence is the abdication of agency, choice, and possibility.
Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue, Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art& Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.