race race

22 11 2008

A national poll taken last week showed that 69 percent of Americans believe that race relations will improve with Obama in office. And I don’t blame this majority for their optimism: after all, didn’t you see all those people — black and white alike — crying their eyes out in Grant Park on November 4th? Didn’t you read all those heartening quotes from the little old ladies who never thought they would see the day? At last, the Constitution has been ratified, more than a century after the fact. At last, we are learning the true meaning of equal rights.

I’m among those pessimistic liberals who sees Obama’s election as symbolic more than anything else. This is an unpopular camp to be in these days, at least in my circle. My friends, students, and family members alike have told me to give the man a chance. He really might be the change we can believe in. Well, I’m certainly glad about the victory — elated, even. And I don’t think there’s anything all that WRONG with electing a symbol. He’s qualified, he’s articulate, he evokes the kind of hero-worship celebrity that the American people hunger for. And more than anything, I hope he will inspire people. I hope he will drive people to commit acts of sacrifice and goodness that stretch beyond their own lives. In that way, I think he could significantly change the world.

But will Obama improve race relations? That’s an interesting question.

I remember the worry that surrounded certain black activists during the election season. They were scared that if Obama was elected, white people would say, “Well, we’ve done it. We’ve evolved to be a truly colorblind society.” And no one is saying that outright, but you can tell that people are feeling it. People are letting their guard down a little bit.

It’s not just white people. My (all African-American) students have been spending the last three weeks saying, “I don’t have to do what you say anymore; I’ve got a black man as my president.” They don’t get it. They don’t understand that the racism in the education system is about the fact that they are often 20 years old and for some reason cannot read on a first grade level. Is Obama’s presidency magically going to fix that? Of course not.

And it’s interesting. We hear all these stories about grown black men moved to tears over the election, and they make us feel good, we understand them, they give us hope. But we seem to pass over the deep red items that seem like they should have come from a newspaper in the early 1900s: The second graders on a school bus in Boise, Idaho who were heard chanting “Assassinate Obama” over and over again; or the African-American church in Massachusetts that was burned down hours after Obama’s election.

In fact, worldwide, race-based threats and incidents have skyrocketed since the United States’ 44th president was announced. As reported in an article in the Times of London U.K.:

The phenomenon appears to be at its most intense in the Southern states, where opposition to Obama is at its highest and where reports of hate crimes were emerging even before the election. Incidents involving adults, college students and even schoolchildren have dampened the early post-election glow of racial progress and harmony, with some African American residents reporting an atmosphere of fear and inter-community tension.

But for me, the most frustrating story I’ve read was in the Times Picayune. It was nothing all that sensational or outwardly terrible. There are always going to be the ratty, nasty few who burn churches or hit people with bats; luckily, they are everywhere within the minority. I mean, the people who reported the story about the children chanting “Assassinate Obama” voted for McCain. Generally, we can tell right from wrong.

But in St. Tammany Parish, a small, mostly-white parish outside New Orleans (76 percent of the population here voted for McCain, and 13 percent of the demographic is African-American), frustrated teachers banned student from talking about the election. As the story reports:

In some cases, students said they were threatened with punishment if they talked about the election.

“She said that if we did talk about (the election) she’d write us up,” 14 year-old Briana Seals, who is black, said of a teacher at Slidell Junior High School.

In Covington, parent Dominique Elzy, who is black, said she complained to the principal at E.E. Lyon Elementary School after her 7-year-old son told her that he was made to stand along the playground wall after he shouted, “Obama won!” during recess.

I know it’s a small thing. But this is the kind of small thing that bothers me the most. Public school should be a place where students begin to understand the world around them. The students at my school should start to understand what it is that a president does, and the students in St. Tammany should be allowed to talk freely about what is going on in the world. I don’t care if discussions like these might make some people upset. That’s what this country is all about, after all: we talk about our differences, we discuss our options, we give each other the freedom to believe what we believe.

Places in this country that are stubbornly conservative have stayed stubbornly conservative, despite the overwhelming shift to the left sparked by this election. I think we ought to be wary of celebrating too soon. It is desperately important that we continue discussions on race, class, politics, what is going on in the world. This country is still so young, and it is going to take a long time to get to reach some kind of nationwide understanding as to what it all means.

I was pleased to hear Cornel West on Democracy Now last week talking on this issue in particular. On a the new presidential elect he had this to say:

Barack Obama is a symbol, but we’ve got to move from symbol to substance. We’ve got to move from what he represents in a broad sense—and it’s a beautiful thing to have a black man in the White House, we know that, and black slaves and laborers and other white immigrants built the White House. …But can we revitalize democratic possibilities on the ground with Barack in the White House? I think we can. We can put some serious pressure on him, and we can actually continue the democratic awakening among working people and poor people and push Barack in a progressive direction.

Seconded. I am interested in the forward motion of this country. I want the newspaper to make me happy. I want to see our school systems truly integrated, I want to see our laws fairly enforced, I want to see children whose opinions have stretched to outgrow the opinions of their parents. That’s the future of America. That’s what I have faith in.





still cool

17 11 2008

Things That Will Never Ever Ever No Matter What Be Uncool (a list which is important because if you ever think that these things are coming into fashion for the first time you should understand now that you are wrong):





guns, horns

10 11 2008

I work at a high school in the Recovery School District in New Orleans. I love my job, for the most part, but I am every day emotionally stretched thin by how quickly my students have had to grow up. There is a boy who sits in the Academic Resource Room with me during my planning period and quietly browses New Orleans murder blogs. You can’t get him to go to class. We’ve called in disciplinarians, other teachers, his parents, you name it, but he always comes back, privately researching real-time death. When I asked him about it — why he looks at these every day, what he is trying to find — he told me that he was looking for the names or stories of friends he’d lost in gang incidents or battles of ambiguous turf. And I thought, “No wonder you don’t want to go to class.”

And that’s pretty typical. All the students here have lost someone too early. Drugs, fighting, Katrina, you name it. But mostly, the stories you hear are about guns.

New Orleans is gun-happy. Before I moved here I had never actually seen a gun — even when I went to the homes of proud hunters. In Portland, having an automatic is like having a zombie locked up in your basement: so ludicrously dangerous it’s absurd. But now I’ve seen several. They’re on peoples’ shelves in their homes; they’re in the passenger seats of cars; people take them everywhere. Guns are treated less like zombies and more like precious babies.

Any time a gun is mentioned in a piece of literature or in a movie at school, my students are quick to call out factual inconsistencies (“He’s shooting that wrong; a semi-automatic is always a double-action only”) — but they’ll believe you if you tell them 2 + 2 is 5. Gun toting is a rite of passage. Forget buying porn and cigarettes (or registering to vote) — your eighteenth birthday is marked by your first legal gun purchase in the state of Louisiana.

There was a brief period following Hurricane Katrina when the city tried to disarm the entire population. You can imagine how well that went over with 2nd Amendment activists. Here, you don’t need a permit to purchase a weapon (although you do need one to carry it in public).

As the number gunshot homicides creeps up every day, I find myself scared to walk around at night — something I’ve never been before. I find myself terrified to answer my phone when another teacher is calling because I don’t want it to be bad news. I can’t imagine what it’s like for the kids who have to live through it every day. But still, no one seems to want to change the law. Kids and adults I talk to argue passionately that they need firearms to protect themselves. “If someone came into my house and tried to get at my family, I wouldn’t want to be caught without a gun,” a student told me last Friday as he was leaving school. Doesn’t he see that the lax attitude with which we treat weapons is causing a city-wide warzone?

There’s no obvious solution. But James Morris of the musician’s advocacy group Sweet Home had a thought.

After Katrina, he proposed to provide musical instruments for anyone who would trade in a gun, no questions asked. He knew it would be difficult to implement, but when the NOPD and a bevy of churches signed on, the project was officially green lighted. Dubbed “Horns for Guns,” community members gained interest:

Musicians signed on. Roots of Music founder and drummer Derrick Tabb joined the effort. Tulane medical students volunteered to conduct health screenings and stress tests for adults. Jim Belfon, a local photographer, agreed to take on a dozen or so interested children as students. The group YA/YA (Young Aspirations/Young Artists) offered to provide art instruction to other teenagers who might stop by.

It didn’t really work. The event, which took place last week took in only about a dozen guns, mostly from people who had “extras” lying around their homes.

Still, the notion is romantic. What if, instead of violence, there was music? Art? Revelry? What a world that would be.

But that’s not the world we live in. Since Obama’s election, gun sales have skyrocketed nationwide, as folks fear that the “gun-snatching” elect will pull the trigger on lax laws. Frankly, I think that would be great, but Obama has a lot on his plate, and he’s currently concerned with reaching across the aisle as far as he can in an effort to “unite” the country.

And last night I went to New Orleans’ “Battle of the High School Marching Bands.” It was in City Park. The attendance was 99.99 percent black. Throughout the show, MCs hailed Obama, hailed America, and issued long-winded pleas to end the violence in New Orleans.

Then someone came out with a gun. Everyone started running, like it was to be expected. As I was heading for my car in the shuffle, a little girl (as if on some cliched cue) screamed at her mom, “I DON’T EVER WANT TO GO TO ANOTHER BATTLE OF THE BANDS AGAIN.”





prospect 1

2 11 2008

Yesterday New Orleans unveiled what might be the most amazing art exhibit the United States has ever seen. I know that I’m a bit young and naive to be making this statement, and I’m not even that immersed in the art community. I’m one of those art-posers, you know? I have some art books; I once dated an art major; I like to go to museums casually, so on and so forth; but I don’t subscribe to CMYK Magazine and I have never paid thousands of dollars for a tiny little thing in oil. But I stand by my statement, as enormous as it may seem.

Prospect.1 is a biennial. If you have never heard of an art biennial before, that’s probably because the United States has never really had one — at least, not one like this. A biennial, of course, is any event which is held every two years. So the art exhibit — billed as the largest exhibition of contemporary art ever in the U.S. — will only gain strength in the future.

The map of the event in of itself is amazing. It’s huge. You look at it and you think, “This city is big. And there is art all over it.

In an interview with NPR’s “All Things Considered,” exhibition curator Dan Cameron said that he was disappointed with the way visual artists responded to Hurricane Katrina and he wanted to do something about it. Musicians, writers, filmmakers, poets — everyone, it seemed, but visual artists — responded in some way to the devastation of the storm. So Cameron sought to change all of that in a big way, and Prospect.1 was born. Two years in the making, the exhibition brings together work by more than 80 artists from around the world (including dozens of local creators) to over 100,000 square feet of exhibition space all over the city.

Mostly, though, the work is in the French Quarter (taking over the entire Lousiana Museum at the Mint Building, the Contemporary Arts Center, and a huge chunk of the NOMA), and the Lower Ninth Ward.

Everything about the exhibition is fascinating, from Cameron’s vision to the stories of the artists to the individual stories of the works on display. But what struck me about Prospect 1 more than anything else was how deeply unpretentious it was. The work is painstakingly created; it is meticulous and time- and labor-intensive. The themes are all there as you would expect them to be: the corruption of the government, the horror of poverty, the unseen faces of crime, the lost voices of the dead, the tremendous power of nature, the depth of the human heart, etc. etc. etc. But it is all done with an air of selflessness. It is all done without the intention of achieving greatness, but of honoring something deep and solemn. As Cameron put it in an interview with The New York Times:

“It is American, but it’s no longer what we think of as American — it’s drop what you’re doing and go do what your neighbor’s doing.”

In other words, this is the kind of art you can bring your kid to, or your grandmother, or that guy who thinks Picasso and Pissarro are the same person. This is the kind of art that brings people together. It is a little like going to church, but somehow friendlier, and more holy.

That’s why I can say that this is the greatest art exhibit ever to hit the United States. It’s conceptually, contextually, and craftily brilliant.

I thought about writing about the individual works which reached me most deeply, but I realized that would be beyond the point. Prospect.1 is a single work more than it is anything else, and it reminds you why we create in the first place: to explain in some way, shape or form our own humanity.