More Desolation

I had planned to post a funny list of reasons it costs more for a pet’s haircut than the owner’s. But I’m still too brokenhearted over this latest act of evil.

This essay by an angry and charismatic young man holds out hope for change. Cameron Kasky and his classmates join the tradition of young people on the vanguard of change: the sit-ins at the lunch counters, the protests against the Vietnam War, #BlackLivesMatter, and now #MeToo. May the Parkland students ignite an national movement.

I’ll just end with a plea that I first wrote after the carnage at Sandy Hook, which still tears at my heart.

Please, please, please do not let the gun control issue get subsumed under reform of mental-health laws. Yes, we need to make certain that people who are a danger to themselves or others receive needed help. But that care doesn’t negate the need for gun control.

On that issue, people should be able to have their hunting rifles and shotguns just as they have fishing poles and crab traps. Decisions about handguns should be made by individual jurisdictions. I can easily see different rules in West Podunk, Texas, and New York City. But why should anyone outside the U.S. military be allowed to buy and use the weapons used in Newtown and Aurora, the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and now Parkland? No one has yet to offer a good answer.

Launching ‘Black Panther’

Professor William Foster

My friend Professor William H. Foster III began the Black Panther experience tonight with an enthralling talk about the Panther, black comic books, history, culture, and lots of humor.

We met through a mutual friend but then discovered two two-degrees of connection. He grew up in a Philadelphia neighborhood where I moved about the time he left for Connecticut. When he arrived in Middletown, he rented a room from Larry’s grandmother.

Bill is a world-renowned expert on black comics and their authors, people that we lesser mortals can only gaze at in awe. With two books about these folks and their work,  and more on the way, Bill has established his credentials in a genre that deserves greater recognition for reflecting how we live — and how we should view the world.

During Thursday’s talk at First Church, Bill  put the film in context with discussions of the Black Panther Party and the 1960s experience, Roots and Alex Haley, along with the debt the world owes to Africa  for mathematics, architecture, and a great many of the crops we consume.

Bill’s animated presentation engaged his audience. He preached, even as he joked with the two little girls in the front row who seemed utterly entranced. He drew applause and “amens.”

Though I was familiar with many of the non-comic aspects of his talk, one concept floored me: There is a link between Prohibition and the birth of comic books.

Can’t wait to hear his assessment of the movie.

Valentine’s Day with a Broken Heart

Once again, I am feeling desolate The shooting in Florida has reopened the wounds of Sandy Hook.  Processing this newest trauma will take months. In the meantime I want to wish friends and family Happy Valentine’s Day.

The above is an Ann Petry original. Each year she composed a variation on “Roses are red” and sent it to her loved ones. The little running figures appeared in various forms in her notebooks and on pages where she doodled while on the phone and so forth, plus in the odd letter or note.

The halo came from the TV series The Saint. I’m pretty sure she had started her little running figures before show opened in 1962, but it’s possible she appropriated the whole thing. She did not watch the Roger Moore and co. before 1966, the year our family acquired a TV.

The reverse of the V’tine was never traditional. This harbinger of spring, I’m pretty sure, was cut from a greeting card she had received, a terrific missive to receive in dark and snow-ridden February.

And here’s Liz’s version with hope that all may live to say “I love you” to the special people in their lives. And may we never again have another Broward or Sandy Hook.

Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler/But Not That Way

A courir participant in Soileau. He’s unmasked and wearing a baseball cap (Los Angeles?!). Maybe he’s a capitaine.

To celebrate Fat Tuesday, I’m updating an entry from 2010.

The one place I don’t want to be this Mardi Gras is New Orleans. Not that I don’t love the city with its great food and fabulous music. It’s just that being part of a big drunken, topless party isn’t my idea of fun.

Larry and I visited the year before Katrina. It was January, weeks away from Mardi Gras, and it was still pretty much a drunken mess. We left the hotel one morning just as the city’s super efficient cleaning squad was finishing its work. Boy, was that disgusting! I totally get why the authorities don’t allow glass and metal containers. The discarded plastic overflowing from trash bins and scattered in their general vicinity could have been recycled to supply the city all over again. And that was the cleanest part of the trash.

Added in 2018: I love that the head of public works is a woman and that she’s devised a way to keep all those beads out of the storm drains. Maybe they should be added to the levees.

No N.O. for me during the Mardi Gras party. What I would like to see, though, is a traditional celebration called courir de Mardi Gras (Mardi Gras run – I have no idea how they pronounce “courir”). My relatives on the bayou told me about it some years ago, and it looks like the smaller towns still follow the practice.

The tradition involves men, and recently women and children, wearing costumes and masks to conceal their identity making their way from house to house on horseback. They sing and dance or otherwise entertain the residents. When they are done they beg and perform for an ingredient for the gumbo pot that will feed the town.

Some of the outfits are uncomfortably close to Klan sheets that fell into a dye vat. One web site said the hats were meant to make fun of those worn by noblewomen during medieval times.

Daddy assured me that the Klan was never active in the bayou because most of the population was Catholic – and because the Knights of Columbus told the Klan “If you show up here, we’ll kick your butt,” or words to that effect. Turns out that probably wasn’t true.

It’s interesting that one site distinguishes between the “Cajun” courirs in the first eight locations and the ninth, the “Creole” courir in Soileau.

The best part must be watching the Mardi Gras as they are called chasing chickens around people’s yards. No, make that the second best part. The best part would be eating the resulting gumbo and watching the dancing afterward.

Apparently there are different traditions in more urban Lafayette where the men wore masks but did not beg for food. Rather they followed the practice of New Orleans where the krews stage battles, which are now mock battles but used to involve beaucoup violence. (“Meet me, boys, on the battle front/The Wild Tchopatoulas gonna stomp some rump.”)

More Art

Friday’s entry didn’t do justice to the breadth and depth of Pierre Sylvain’s work, so I’m doing another entry. I mentioned the influence of Cubism, but there is also folk art and neo- expressionism.

Door of No Return

Among the most stunning images are the black-and-white acrylic on board that portrays aspects of slavery and abolition. As soon as I saw them, I thought of the Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat,

Pierre’s “Door of No Return” is among the best expressions of the horror of the slave trade. The door is in a building “La Maison des Esclaves” on Gorée Island in Senegal where many captive Africans last saw their homeland.

The Radiant Child

With its bold colors and liveliness, Basquiat’s “The Radiant Child” forms a counterpoint to the dark and brooding “Door of No Return,” though the child’s American flag smile does have a macabre quality. (The meaning of “Apokhes,” which appears on several paintings, remains obscure).

Both artists’ images share an energy and a passion. Basquiat’s have more elements of folk art and appear rougher, but their messages of black empowerment resonate equally. People who control these things should arrange an exhibit of works by these artists.

‘Fantastical Journey’

‘Mambo’ by Pierre Sylvain

Middletown’s Russell Library has a magical exhibit on display in the lobby and reference section. Local artist Pierre Sylvain has mined his Haitian roots, along with American history and culture to produce “Fantastical Journey: voodoo, slavery, jazz!”

Pierre’s art defies adequate description. He works mostly in acrylic but stretches the form as he paints on far more than canvas. Glass and boards supply textures that enhance the images. He adds a collage effect with the addition of seashells and glass beads, as in “Mambo,” described as the female higher priest in the voodoo religion.

The black-and-white images in the lobby represent a powerful testament to the evils of slavery. “The Middle Passage” and “Door of No Return” could stand by themselves as a way to teach the pain and dislocation that afflicted millions, scars that remain today.

The most fascinating are the paintings on shutters. Many of them feature musicians blowing horns. The texture of the shutters gives the paintings an organic quality that suits the musical themes.

The images are accessible, though of course they grow on the viewer the longer one gazes. A number have people with one eye closed, or at least appearing as a slit. At first I thought it was a sign of injury, but the warrior “Woman of Caiman” will inflict wounds before she receives them. It’s the most Cubist aspect of Pierre’s work, at once enticing and mysterious.

Pierre calls another series “Grace and Movement.” With it he intends “to create a series that engages your mind and your spirit.” It surely does, as do the rest of his works.

The exhibit is up through March 31, thoughtfully after the end of Black History Month, and also offering plenty of time to go view it.

Effective Butterfly

Price in 1925: 15 cents

The New Yorker celebrates its birthday every year with some variation of Eustace Tilley, who appeared on the original cover. I discussed it in “New York,” “New York.

Three years ago Kadir Nelson created “Eustace Negro,” my favorite version to date.

Now Mr. Negro has a rival in elegance and stature. Malika Favre says she tries to keep her images simple. While “The Butterfly Effect” may have simple lines it delivers a complex message – Eustace is now black and female and better dressed than her male counterparts.

Note the price: $8.99.

Go online to watch the gif, which hints at how this butterfly may have started the serial tornados of #metoo and the cascade of firings. Her observer may be invoking the uncertainty principle, leading to consequences that none of us can foresee.



What I’m Watching Now (My Next Guest…)

I never saw an entire David Letterman show until last night. During his run from the ‘’80s through 2015, I was either working or asleep because I had to be at work early. The snippets I saw did not impress: Top 10 got old fast. Stupid pet tricks were excruciating. Paul Shaffer’s talents seemed painfully wasted.

So it was with some hesitation that I decided to watch My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. Figuring that President Barack Obama could redeem pretty much any situation, I decided to risk it.

The final product was better than expected. Letterman needs to lose that beard but otherwise comported himself well, except for his ungracious rebuff when Obama tried to ask questions. While their conversation offered some insights, the most moving sections involved Letterman’s walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Congressman John Lewis. The skillful interweaving of Lewis’s reaction to the current political situation with footage of the assault by police officers and other images of the movement gave the “My Next Guest” a gravitas that it would otherwise have lacked.

Letterman revealed a great deal about himself when he said that he and his buddies caught a boat to the Caribbean where they could drink legally instead of participating in the Selma march. He essentially asked why. Obama was too polite to say because Letterman didn’t have enough invested in the outcome – white privilege on display in a graphic way.

Even though I found the program engaging, I won’t return unless he interviews Oprah or Margaret Atwood.

What I’m Reading Now (Out of the Briars)

This is not an image of the edition I read. It’s available free online.

When my friend Jesse Nasta visited the veteran’s writing group, he recommended a book that I’m certain is unfamiliar to most people. A.H. (Alexander Hemitage) Newton published Out of the Briars in 1910. Its subtitle explains both its obscurity and its unique place in the world: “An Autobiographical Sketch of the Twenty-Ninth Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers” is the only narrative written by a member of the U.S. Colored Troops to serve from this state. It reinforces my view that if more history were taught from these primary sources, more students would appreciate it.

Reverend Newton (he became an AME Zion pastor after the war) opens with his early life as the son of an enslaved father and free mother in New Bern, North Carolina. Anyone who believes that the life of free blacks in the ante-bellum South was easy will receive an education. And anyone who thinks that black folks, even young ones, acquiesced to whites will be enlightened.

The story of Reverend Newton’s arrival in the North and participation in the 29th form the most captivating portions of the text. The privation suffered by the men – lack of water and food, worn out clothing, may be familiar in a general way, but Reverend Newton makes it vivid.

From his youth, he regretted his lack of education, though his thoughtfulness and deep understanding appear to have compensated until he was able to rectify the situation – and did he ever. Once the war ended, he set about in earnest to learn in a major way, culminating at age 70 with a Ph. D.

Once he learned to write he began to keep a journal and the book is the fruit of that years-long labor. His fellow soldiers turned to him after the war to bolster their own memories. Every unit should have such a person.

He helped establish and build up AME Zion churches in the South despite ferocious attacks from white terrorists. Later he gave time and energy and money to churches in New Jersey and environs, joining his efforts with a number of illustrious men who rose to the upper echelons of the ministry. Despite these successes, Reverend Newton suffered personal tragedy with the loss of two wives and his children.

The autobiography does suffer from excessive name checking and loses momentum after the war ends, but it is nevertheless engrossing and should be required reading in American history courses.

What I’m Reading Now (Complete Poetry)

Blog is back at last, following a month of work and flu and who knows what.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote (rough translation), “One is not what one writes but what one has read.” Today I feel better defined – humble and enlightened to read my friend Thelma’s birthday gift of Maya Angelou’s The Complete Poetry.

Some of these poems are familiar and bring joy once more. “Still I Rise” with those lines “’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells/Pumping in my living room.”

And of course the elegy addressed to “All the World’s Citizens, Who Lost a Friend When President Nelson Mandela Died.” Through the magic of her words, she draws the peoples of South Africa together with those of us in the States who watched, inspired, as he walked out of prison and healed the suffering of a nation. “Even here in America/We felt the cool/Refreshing breeze of Freedom/When Nelson Mandela took/The seat of the presidency…”

Many others in this 308-page collection are new to me: “Song for the Old Ones,” which opens with “My Fathers sit on benches,” continues: “There in those pleated faces/I see the auction block/the chains and slavery’s coffles/the whip and lash and stock.” Stark images stand juxtaposed against the wisdom of the elders.

“Willie” refers to the uncle that she describes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. There, young Maya’s grandmother hides the disabled Willie under piles of onions to protect him from a lynch mob. In the poem, he’s “Crippled and limping, always walking lame,” but he says, “ ‘I may cry and I will die,/But my spirit is the soul of every spring,/Watch for me and you will see/That I’m present in the songs that children sing.’ ” He didn’t have much of a voice in the essay. Here, It is at once comforting and revealing that here he speaks with the voice of hope and uplift.

I started reading the poems in the order presented. Now I’m just dipping in and out and shall cherish this collection for many years to come. If I am what I read, then I’m filled with the harsh reality of suffering and with sublime beauty and grace.