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Posts Tagged ‘African-American art’


Fonny (James Stephen) and Tish (Kiki Layne) as we first see them walking together


Gradually appearing intertitle introducing the film

I wanted to write something for Martin Luther King day on the web itself. So I read most of Baldwin’s If Beale Street could Talk, and then rewrote a blog written about If Beale Street could talk mostly just as a movie and from commentary about the book: I was startled to find what a tender tone is suffused throughout the book because of the inner spirit of the narrator, Tish (Clementine is a give-away of sorts, a symbolic name). It is a sort of romance! But also a book much like The Bluest Eye (a Coming of Age for girls book), except (one could say) Bluest Eye is l’ecriture-femme, Beale Street from a more masculine point of view. My theme is the tragic waste of US American racism for all, the pity of it, the terror too.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day: here in Virginia finally some mild gun control legislation has been passed by a democratic house and governor, and the result has been a threatened violent riot in Charlottesville, Va., organized by white supremacist groups with credible evidence they mean to cause havoc and use their guns; they are misrepresenting the legislation which does not at all infringe on the right of legitimate gun ownership. This demonstration and its misrepresentation of the passed gun control law has been endorsed by Trump. Governor Northam called in the FBI to investigate and three people were arrested. The day chosen was naturally this one, our National Holiday for remembering Martin Luther King, who might have been the best president we ever had — if he had lived. Murdered at 37 (before 40 like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and other black male leaders), MLK was responsible for a movement which culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights act, today partly gutted by the Supreme Court. The demonstration was not violent but was immense as was the state police presence; OTOH, something a sizable majority of Virginians support gun control, and the democrats won on the issue. It is hopeful that no violence occurred because it may be that if Trump loses the next election, riots on his behalf to keep him in the presidency will be prevented.

Friends and readers,

If Beale Street could talk, book and film, tell the same terrible tale we learn about in When They See Us. A system of incarceration whose structure and rules give African-Americans no hearing, only injustice and the felt hostility of blind chance & dependence on other vulnerable frightened people.

I began with the film, which I’ve wanted to watch for quite some time:  we are thrust into the story of two lovers walking down a paved alley in a park, and they vow love to one another, and determine they will tell their families, who, it seems, may not approve. Cut to Tish’s voice saying “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love…through glass:” we now see her sitting in a prison visiting room on one side of a glass waiting for Fonny to be brought out to sit on the other side. They cannot touch one another, they cannot hear unless they pick up the phones attached to each side of the booth they share. We are puzzled for a long time: why is he in prison. He seems utterly upstanding, he makes little money as a sculptor, but he is the son of church-going people, not an alcoholic, not drinking, trying to get together money to bribe someone willing to rent to them. Much of the film is interwoven flashbacks and we see in one: someone finally offers them a concrete garage space that is described as a loft (so the man can charge more). Most of the time no one will rent to them.

Gradually the story unfolds bit-by-bit: flashbacks interwoven and a narrator’s voice to connect is the mode: so throughout with increasing poignancy we see their ecstatic first days and nights of love.  But then after he is jailed, she finds she is pregnant, then (something she dreads) she has to tell her family and then his without him, because he is in prison (still unexplained): her family accepts the baby and coming marriage:

His mother does not, nor his sisters who speak in ugly spiteful ways using church dogma as a cover.

More time goes by in the ongoing forward time narrative as Tish gets a job selling perfume (one she is told she should be grateful for as she is black), and then one night in a flashback while they are walking in the street we see how from out of nowhere Fonny was accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), he never met and was nowhere near. They are told she singled Fonny out in a police-formed row of men; and are gradually led to a white lawyer (Finn Whittrock), well-meaning, who tells them the woman has fled to Puerto Rico. Fonny is beginning to become angry, frantic, violent, resentful, half-crazy in the bare cell room.

Then finally, either as flashback, just before or after, we see a brief encounter between Fonny and a sly angry-looking, resentful white police officer whose name we learn is Bell (Ed Skrein) grows livid when after he accuses Fonny of stealing, the store owner vindicates Fonny. Fonny himself is proud, often hot-tempered and has to be controlled by Tish. Bell warns Fonny he will get back. Early on Tish remarks what happened was the result of Fonny’s strong pride. Yes and it took just one resentful white man.


The police officer, seen only once, his sneer hardly has time to register

And all came clear to me. This white officer incensed at Fonny has lied, pressured the woman into accusing him, probably helped her to flee. There is no way Fonny can clear himself of this crime unless the Puerto Rican woman comes back to refute her testimony.

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The movie seemed to me and now I know is a deeply felt adaptation of a novel by Baldwin, both of which (book and movie) dramatize as the on-going story the need African-American people have of one another. Again we see the two family groups early on, and Fonny’s mother and sisters are incensed, cruel and corrosive in what they say. After Fonny is imprisoned, the two fathers getting together to steal little-by-little to get up the money for Sharon Rivers, Trish’s mother (Regina King) to go to Puerto Rico to speak to the woman.

Mrs Rivers is so brave, ever changing her clothes, her wig, wanting to look presentable, right somehow, so intense, worried, tight, hopeful still, goes and at first is rebuffed by the woman’s older male relative, but eventually he yields (perhaps a bribe) but then Victoria becomes hysterical and refuses to go back to withdraw her testimony. She asks Mrs Rogers if she has ever been raped. This is the desolate climax of the film.


Mrs Rivers trying to appeal to Victoria


But Victoria is herself walled in by her own anger, resentment hopeless impoverishment

When it’s clear they can’t count on any evidence in their favor except there is no evidence but the identification by a woman who won’t come to the court, at first the lawyer holds out, but we see the case is going nowhere, there is no trial set.  Tish gives birth to her baby; fast forward and Tish tells us that he plea bargained and it’s clear they are waiting for the years of prison to go by as they meet regularly in a freer prison room for visitors. His son is a small child and they try to act as a family during the time they have together. Eat, play a board game, tell each other how the week has been. This is how the  film ends; the family in a visiting room in a prison, with the wife’s salary and will power holding them together.

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I now got hold of and read the book, before rewriting the original blog — as well as returning to David Leeming’s commentary and quotation of Baldwin in his James Baldwin: A Biography, and Joyce Carol Oates’s review for the New York Times of the book and film before writing this blog.

Crucially, no one in the feature that came with the film never anywhere said that Fonny was framed; that he will spend years of his life behind bars helplessly. Not one person said it was the spite of a single police officer. I wanted to read the book to make sure (since in the film this is never made explicit) this a parable about how vulnerable black people are at any moment to be plunged into non-life, death in prison. Why keep silent? This is supposed to be Beale Street talking at last, telling. What is startling is how tender the tone of the novel when it comes to Fonny; the book is also a loving deeply sad romance, mourning how Fonny never had a chance.

It’s an instance of what we experience in When They See Us: it is the same story writ little from the point of view of the woman who loved the man. In the US if you are black and someone somewhere with some authority who is white can destroy you.

Baldwin emphasizes the story is a parable about “the black man’s bondage … everywhere; and “the emotional imprisonment of whites.” I again admit I didn’t see that much, only that the lawyer was as helpless as his client finally. In David Leeming’s biography, Baldwin says he also meant to show how isolated black are at the same time that they recognize they must be involved with one another, recognize their need of one another, share and bond experience in a way of imprisoned (if often invisible) life. The context is a “battle for integrity” in a world where the struggle to survive makes them have painfully to give integrity up — or compromise reality.

Joyce Carol Oates, like the people in the feature to the DVD, seems to want to make this an affirmative story about the endurance of African-American people helping one another Oates says it is a “traditional celebration of love:” and it is all she says, including a portrait of the white lawyer as sympathetic and doing his weak best.


Regina King as Sharon and Colman Domingo as Tish’s parents


The white lawyer

Her review doubts the wisdom of using Tish as a narrator (voice-over) retrospectively — there seems to me her doubt of this young girl having gravitas enough doubt about a woman’s gravity and seriousness, and a black woman. I admit Oates goes over and makes plain the horror at the center of this disaster, but did she have to say “so patiently,” of course the police officer is a villain (who has killed a 12 year old black boy some time ago), and to de-emphasize this seems racist to me.

Now I see that the film, through an integrated back-and-forth series of flashbacks tells the story of both Fonny and Tish since they were children bathing together, the stages of their earliest life in black-and-white photos. I thought of the third-century Greek romance, Daphnis and Chloe, the later 18th century Rouseauistic Paul and Virginia. We see his friendship with a man who gives evidence him (coerced); moments of Fonny doing sculpture, Tish selling things, coping with customers, the two of them begging a meal when they have no money, fixing their apartment, but I suggest a thread through the love affair is Tish’s mother’s support of them, of her; Tish’s sister gets the lawyer but Tish’s mother helps her to give birth and bathe the baby first. And especially Tish coping from pregnancy to still waiting.


Tish giving birth with her mother’s help


Bathing the baby

The film rightly was nominated for many awards; it should have won more. At least Regina King won for Best Supporting Actress.

It’s a beautiful book and wish I had known about it before; I had placed a version of this on my Reveries under the Sign of Austen blog because the narrated voice and point of view is that if the young woman and her mother. It has many scenes of intimate domestic life: the kinds of furniture black people can afford; Fonny and Tish doing all sorts of things in their lives: he with friends, she in the subway. The book is a heroine’s text. A poignant romance where courage is holding out (like Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop). It is a woman’s film using the characteristics of women’s art to powerful effect.


An iconic scene from their beginning love story

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But today I know it belongs on my general blog and I have moved it here, and widened my purview in a coda where I offer my first response to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which I began reading for the first time yesterday.

What a masterpiece of a first book. I recommend it and her Beloved on this day. The Bluest Eye is quiet, unassuming, the story of an American black family from the point of view of one of the younger daughter/sisters, Claudia. It brings home to me what a tragedy it is that working class white and black people in the US do not realize how much we have in common. As I read although my family did not have quite these hideous experiences (the house is burnt down – something white people did regularly and got away with until the last part of the 20th century) many of the desolating exclusionary experiences her family members know we knew. The attitudes of mind remind me of what we knew. So much in common and denied because of the use of “middle class” which skews whom one identifies with and enables people to ignore their real circumstances, what are their real expectations/hopes. Howard Zinn in his History of the People of the US shows that from the very beginning of the US state, the upper classes have been concerned to keep better off and poor whites from identifying with Native and African-Americans.

The story of the girl being given a white doll and destroying it bit by bit reminded me of Maggie Tulliver in Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. How Maggie hated that doll too and took it up to the attic to abuse it. I didn’t hate my dolls but an ugly story occurred around one, after which I destroyed it and had no more dolls but one Ginny (age 11) and tired of her soon with her fancy wardrobe &c The title comes from a little girl in the book, Pecola, who Claudia’s mother is kind enough to take in (her family has been smashed) and who tells her new friends, Claudia and her sister, Frieda, she longs for a blue eye, though all her features are African. Claudia is out of sympathy with this, thus producing an alienated perspective within an implicitly alienated earnest one.

The book has several of the classic incidents of a mature young girl’s novel, for example, when Pecola menstruates for the first time, is very frightened and how she is treated. By the way none of these occur in Little Women (another is sexual harassment, the closest Alcott gets to this is Meg Goes to Vanity Fair when Meg allows her hostess to sexualize her dress.) My last image for this blog is Emily Watson playing Maggie Tulliver in a 1997 BBC Mill on the Floss; she has been the best Marmee thus far too (in the 2017/8 BBC 3 part Little Women). When I got to the end of the book I was so angry, I threw it across the room and then through it out. The book ended with her forgiveness of a brother who had destroyed her life, her senseless death trying to rescue him.

We are reading these two novels by Morrison now on WomenWriters@groups.io; the last two months we read Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: she mentions only three girls’ books but two are Little Women and Mill on the Floss — she identified with Jo and Maggie. Well Claudia and Pecola and Clementine (Tish) are three more such heroines in the same vein ….

For Martin Luther King day a great powerful African-American literature and its close parallels with great powerful European-American literature by women — novels of girls growing up and the choices inflicted on them …

Ellen

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Tape Recorder used by Malcolm X. Wollensak Stereo-tape magnetic recorder, Model T-1515

Revolution is not a one-time event — Audre Lorde

Friends and readers,

People, if you’re in any doubt, go. It’s not only worth it, it is not as upsetting as you might imagine it will be, nor is it aggressively mournful, angry, or even celebratory. I think attempts have been made to make sure that an African-American coming to this museum, will leave with a sense of a strong determined identity confirmed in such a way as to make him or her feel proud and good.


Traditional European-style history painting of the Revolutionary war in the museum


The opening remarks of Barbara Jordan giving her keynote speech in 1976 is on the top floor, “Culture galleries”

Since my day at the African-American Museum, I have found myself having different and much more aware reactions to things I see and words I hear daily than I had had before I went; I filled out gaps in knowledge I didn’t know I didn’t have; I came away with explanations for phenomena I didn’t realize needed more explanation; I understand the source or origin for familiar images; I understand why Marcus Garvey said that African-Americans must build their own separate community or state on land outside white American society, that African-Americans remain a captive people.

I didn’t know that in the later part of the 19th century African-Americans did attempt to build their own communities, and these were destroyed by envious or resentful groups of whites. I didn’t know that just after World War I when African-Americans began to leave the south in droves, having had an experience of liberty, confirmed self-esteem, and education in an armed force, a new active lynching movement sprang up in the north and west, and there were riots against their new presence; I did not know that lynching was followed by mutilation of the person’s hanging corpse and then cutting off the head — every desecration that could be piled on. I saw this in the remarkably few photographs of lynching the museum displays. I found I am particularly ignorant of the history of African-Americans immediately after the civil war was over — the brief period where they were treated decently, began to vote, sat in representative assemblies; of their history again at the turn of the 20th century (devastating cruelty inflicted on them, in effect re-enslavement through laws forbidding them to leave the south, to leave a job where they owed money perpetually; the prison system; and again in the 1920s, and 1940s apart from the war.

I was impressed by the self-control and moderation of tone with which the history of African-Americans in the United States was presented. Inside the memorial for Emmett Till I began to cry.


Emmett Till’s casket when it was still in the old garage

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A corner of the corona building — with that delicate design work in iron seen in golden light

I finally made it a week ago Tuesday, and spent some 5 hours there. I left when I did because I felt my feet and legs had just enough strength to take me the trek back home. I had been wanting to go there since I saw Gwen Ifill’s first segment on it on PBS (and she’s been dead some years). Pondering the obstacles of early on getting tickets, and then when someone like me could, the distance (drive to train, train, walk it was said 15 minutes from a subway stop), so finding the place after having bought timed-tickets on a wekbsite and/or waiting outside on lines, I had begun to give up hope. Still I told myself if I could just plan a day, pull myself together, and go, I should probably manage it. Then at OLLI at Mason this January, a woman came from the museum to deliver a 2 hour lecture on the history, architecture, exhibits, doings of the place, and said you didn’t need any ticket at all ahead for this January and February. So now or never. Three weeks ago I was un-surprized to be thwarted because an inch of snow closed the place down, but two weeks ago all clear.

I found it by going to the Smithsonian stop (so glad I had wit enough to chose that one of the three cited on the website), and with the help of a man who works in the Metro. I had fallen and a man in the booth came over. I said I wanted to find the African-American museum. I told him there was no map on the website, and was seeking Constitution Avenue, he nodded and said that was not necessary. He said go up the escalator and turn left. I said, no that cannot be as that is the park. So he came up the escalator with me and walked into the Mall park and pointed to the building. It’s distinctive; it stands out. So I had to turn left in the park and walk in the direction of that building and it took about 7 minutes or so.

You first enter a grand concourse, all sparkling glamour with a bronze chariot hanging from the ceiling (“Swing low, sweet chariot … “). Like many recent museums, there is so much space wasted — super high ceilings, large desks with not much information, a cafeteria to the side, an auditorium for cultural events (Oprah Winfrey), and glass doors leading to different corridors. One takes you to a large elevator where you go down some three flights at least and then coming out walk through history set up as exhibits of all sorts in a large maze with inner rooms and outer, gradually rising to the concourse again. There were places you could sit and watch films. Places you could sit and read the plaques explaining what you were seeing. Like the American Museum of Natural History in NYC big glass cases set in walls with exhibits.

You begin with the period where the practice of enslavement of (eventually) thousands and thousands of people. I thought about the period where they were captured, manacles with horrifying hooks put about their necks, stripped to nakedness, and then forced aboard ships. What few remnants and relics survive are surrounded by modern pictures, explanations of the economics of this capture and deportations; the (to me) familiar mappings of these hellhole ships. Then the exhibit divides into four localities to show enslavement in Chesapeake area, the Carolinas, Louisiana, and up north. You look at decrees, see artifacts, read of the many rebellions, horrific loss of life, all dignity and comfort to those alive – and evidence also of people trying to hold onto their original beliefs, form family groups.


A reproduction of a mural, “The Old Plantation” circa 1785-1795, watercolor on paper, attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia

In the middle sections — after the Revolutionary War and leading up to the civil war — you can try to observe how enslaved black people lived among white people who were by law backed up by guns and horrific punishments their owners or also all the other people all around them. How everyone accommodated movement. Their houses in the fields. Their working conditions. Tools. I remarked there were few whips — there was in this museum an attempt to downplay the misery of such an existence. A few people managed to buy themselves out of enslavement; a few learn to read, learn trades. We see the papers they were required to carry (and danger they could be snatched back into enslavement and their papers destroyed). For my taste there were too many statues of famous white American males. There was an ancient beat up square piece of stone about one foot high: an auction block. Much about resistance, about attempts at some semblance of life outside body-killing work and continual subjugation. Not nearly enough on the horrors women would have experienced (rape, pregnancy, exhibition, beating, babies and children taken from you &c) — the museum has what photos have lasted — mostly groups of African-Americans around shacks and in the fields.


Clara Brown — one of my favorite statues — her story is both sad and courageous

Born enslaved in Virginia, Clara Brown married at age 18, and had to endure all four children being taken from her and sold; after the Civil War she moved to Colorado and worked as a cook, laundress and midwife; she invested her money in mines and land, and used it to help support community organizations. All her life she searched for her four children. When very old she finally was united (the plaque said) with one daughter.

Much on the civil war — because more and more photos, artefacts, relics, documents and here occasionally books mentioned.

Very educational were the rooms for the turn of the 20th century because an attempt was made to show how African-Americans were building their own institutions, creating their own associations (NAACP), were developing a genuine middle class, with a small elite business community. I did know how these groups reached out to one another and to more isolated people to do what they could to educate one another, get decent jobs. Each time (I must add) there is a cruel push-back — no, they cannot get into unions (so the history of Pullman Porters); there seems to be always some group ready and able to re-impose isolation, poverty. But you see a black press, and very important the development of talented people in the arts, music, literature, and then doctors, lawyers, teachers. The early minstrel shows (with black face) have one wall. This section before and during the push for civil rights after World War Two (this began in the 1950s) had films of individuals, and was dependent to a large extent on African-American people supplying their own saved relics — like a parlor organ from 1911 (a room with books and rugs is built around it). Famous African-American people have separate glass cases, from Ida Wells and Booker T. Washington.

In the middle of the higher level is a Southern Railway train. Now what’s remarkable about this is the section reserved for “coloreds” is so much more comfortable, suggesting aspects of the treatment of colored people during this segregated era on trains much much better than passengers on planes in economy seats today.

I went in and saw the colored people’s chairs had armrests. What airplane gives a passenger a comfortable armrest? There was plenty of room in the aisles and people faced one another. The whites had bigger seats, bathrooms at both ends of the cars, more accommodation for food, but no one was treated (as far as the construction of the car lets you see) in the abusive manner airlines do today. You have room for your body to sleep, eat, be comfortable.

This was not the only place in the 20th century part of the history that I observed poorer and ordinary (not people part of some exclusive “club” where they pay extra) people today are treated as badly and worse than segregated African-Americans in public places they shared with whites. And see forms of enslavement today for millions of black men in prisons.

Once I moved into the 1960s, I was on familiar ground. There was a long cafeteria like counter with seats in front of which are perpetual films. Some of the more troubling things is that the Angola Prison exhibit is about a prison still going whose treatment of prisoners is still deeply inhumane. But also in these various modules of the 20th century an exhibit about the Hope School, a fine school for African-American children where those lucky enough to go there probably received a much better education than they did when they entered an integrated public school at first. There were uniforms worn by African-American nurses (at first black women couldn’t enter this profession) and a touching photo of an AFrican-American midwife taking care of a new born.

Again in the 1980s and 90s, no where near enough about the roles of the FBI in destroying the Black Panther movement. The frankest parts of the museum heritage galleries were the films and histories of events of the 1960s. There is a set of film clips ending on Johnson signing the civil rights act. As others have said before me, I was disappointed to see so little of Martin Luther King, to be told so little of other leaders who were most of them killed in their 30s (Medgar Evers comes to mind) – let us not forget (see Muhiyyidin D’baha, this past February, another potential black male leader shot dead in the streets).

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Upstairs

What one has also to remember is this is not a museum intended to show high cultural art; like other Smithsonian museums the core idea is to reflect the history of a culture.

The lower floor with its community galleries continues the story of how difficult it has been for African-American people to achieve fulfillment in the US. One exhibit called the “power of place” shows how important to people are the places they grow up in but also how these function to segregate people. You see slow hard climbs of individuals and how they are helped by black groups to become successful this way or that: including making beautiful hats (Mae Reeves’s Millinery shop, for church and then selling these more widely).

I know nothing about most sports and can’t get myself to care who wins prizes so I skipped a whole section of the middle floor. Another section of this floor was about military service and how African-American men (& women nowadays) fought in both wars (I and II), and how ambivalent the experience originally was, but how once integrated the armed services has been a place African-Americans can have and have had fulfilling success and gained respect and power.

Then the highest floor where you can look out to the park too: I had expected to be more amused by the movie and music industry part of the museum than I was. Here I do have a mild criticism: instead of letting the viewer watch say the whole of Barbara Jordan’s speech say one day and then Martin Luther King another, we have ten clips each lasting less than 5 minutes. Or we have clips from famous movies one after another lasting less than 5 minutes. Everything is there then as a sort of celebratory symbol; Chuck Berry’s 1950s Cadillac (with a spotlight) took a good deal of room. Several different groups singing and songs played all at once even if a few yards apart do not allow you to appreciate the music. Little attempt is made to show the slow progress of black people in films or TV. I was surprised to find how painful I found the comic routines of male African-American performers: several were making routines out of the ironies and miseries of their condition, out of the color of their skin, as a source of humor. I didn’t find it so but it does teach you what was acceptable to do to black people in the 1950s and early 60s. And as for today, too much celebrity glamour.

It also seemed to me the finest African-American women singers, actresses and other creative people were not there. No Lena Horne for example. Instead young black sexy icon-types, the huge money-makers, politicians, and silent videos with lots of neon. The most disappointing section was the arts. A truly tiny section of painting, sculpture. I have said that’s not the purpose of the museum. But the lack of interest was startling — again one can go to the other Smithsonian museums to see exhibits of fine African-American photographers. Perhaps the competition is too keen. But the truth while women were equally represented every where but sports and the military, famous women’s dresses are there (Rosa Parks) and typical working outfits for women as well as men’s and women were obviously organizers, active as volunteers and paid heads of organizations, and also part of the elite black world, when it came to the arts, individual good women artists (singers, young actresses, painters, sculptors, performers) were nowhere to be found.

I don’t want to end on a “down” or sour note. It took a very long time from the initial daring proposal (1916, black veterans from World War One) to actual plans, provisions (2003) and finally funding and hiring an architectural firm (2009, thank John Lewis among other people) to this magnificent place. It will be here a long time and there is (as I said) lots of empty space.

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Back on the concourse: the cafeteria specializes in soul food, southern black cookery and is expensive, but you can buy small plates of the food as side dishes and there is coffee, each day a different soup, and sodas and some decent juice. I got a small plate of spinach and a bottle of genuine orange juice.

Then I went into your usual museum shop: lots of jewelry, scarves, T-shirts, commemorative objects. I bought two good books, one a Vintage collection of African-American poetry, and an anthology of “slave narratives” edited by Henry Gates. The two people at the register were friendly and thanked me for supporting the museum. Entry is free. There were also serious books about African-American history and culture and individuals as well as your usual popular stuff, and Michelle Obama’s Becoming in many copies.

I’ll end on this highly intelligent capable woman who had some luck and has been able to live a good life with a man worth of her. Michelle Obama fits into the super-respect given to women politicians and the women who run organizations and are part of the black elite (Hilary Clinton is part of this in her white world and it was these black women who voted for her):


Read this thoughtful review by Isabel Wilkerson (NYTimes Book Review)


As a college student

What’s it like to be an outsider? How can a museum represent the inside world of a particular person? This one didn’t do that enough. It was about black people breaking into the inside of the white world, and about black people who formed their own inside black worlds.

When I look at Michelle Obama at Harvard, and read about the family life she knew, the communities she was part of, and listen to her quoted, I feel she doesn’t know any more for real what it is, though she carries on trying to help those (as they say) “less fortunate.”  I don’t begrudge her her luck, and am glad for her that she has not been excluded because she is an African-American. In Michelle Obama’s case, being a woman hurt her possibilities much more. After all she did not become president, though out of school and into a job, she was Barack’s mentor.

Oprah Winfrey can make huge amounts of money appealing to whites too and build an auditorium; a extraordinarily good older woman actress, she can help Barack Obama centrally by declaring “he black!”, but she knows better than to run for president.

Ellen

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PorgyandBess
The San Francisco Opera production, with Eric Owens as Porgy and Lester Lynch as Crown

ensemble
Metropolitan Opera production of Le Nozze, with (most notable performance) Peter Mattei as the Count

Dear friends and readers,

The other night I was saying to Yvette as we sat down to our supper together and she channeled onto her ipad a station playing beautiful opera music (it happened to be Wagner’s Die Meistersinger for which we did buy HD-tickets), we have not heard or watched a full opera in ever so long — that is, if you exclude last week’s Great Performance on PBS of a splendid Sweeney Todd with (most notable performance) Emma Thompson. Well, we made up for this a little this weekend.

Friday night we watched a truly superb rendition of Gerswin’s 1930’s lyrical opera, Porgy and Bess. You have five more days to watch it here (start now if you can, or come back soon):

http://video.pbs.org/video/2365348853/

The meditative feel of the music reminded me of an Aaron Copeland opera Jim and I saw years ago, The Tender Land (1954), also an ensemble piece. The opera has flaws: stereotyping of black people in a condescending way, a couple seen writ much larger in the appalling Amos ‘n Andy TV show; Gershwin with the help of (mostly) Suzan Lori-Parks as librettist, assumes that women have no agency at all when it comes to choosing a sexual partner: Bess (Laquita Mitchell — not her fault) is depicted as helpless against her attraction to a mean Crown (Lester Lynch), only able to defy him because he is so violent and awful in comparison with the generous disabled Porgy (Eric Owens) who is driven to murder Crown:

deathscene

Porgy risks all (because the white men in this world as as viciously in charge of an unjust criminal system then as now); but while he is away she is unable to resist the temptation of drugs offered by Sporting Life (played wittily, vibrantly by Chauncey Paker — who has a resonant individual voice):

SPORTING-LIFE

Despite this it’s a serious opera, meaning to be genuinely reflective and respectful towards working class black people’s lives down south in the 1930s, genuinely critical of the white establishment. The music is often gorgeous, haunting. I was moved to discover there is a widow’s long lament for a husband unjust cut off:

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Especially strong (no surprise there) was Eric Owens who gave his disabled character a real living presence: he is not simply or not a saint. Much of his heroism is quiet. The story takes a while to become prominent and drama take over, but when it does, Owens endows his character with strength, manly dignity (for lack of a better term) and when at the close of the opera, he finally gets the people around him to tell him where Bessy has gone (New York City, envisaged as this dangerous large place) he sets off walking on his crutch to rescue Bessy from herself, I felt very moved.

This morning reading about tragedy in the opening two essays in the recent PMLA (actually readable and relevant, even provocative) brought home to me how the depiction of the working poor in Porgy and Bess reminded me of Daniel Auteil’s recent stunningly beautiful film adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s 1930s Marius (about fisherman in the Marseilles area): again the work depends on a group of peasant stereotypes, working class people all fundamentally finally good, and there is an idealization of the life of fisher people in the Marseilles area but this does not begin to give the feel of the story — wrenching manipulation and suspense is part of it too. It endows these characters with archetypal dignity and their conflicts and troubles capture our own memories and feelings. Maybe this descendent from Italian verismo books and operas was part of the 1930s socialist movements.

Auteil and Zambello’s direction is daring, the characters are allowed to feel fully, to have tender subtleties and witty nuances as in the characters of Jake (Eric Green) and Clara (Angel Blue) and their baby: he goes out fishing in bad weather and she seeing he is at risk, rushes out to stop and to save him, and both drown. “Summertime” is Clara’s song.

I wish I could say the same for this new production of Le Nozze di Figaro. It struck me that one response of the Metropolitan film people (including the man who directs the films for the cinema and is never interviewed, Gary Halverson) to having their operas beamed across the world is to play whatever is the material utterly safe. The bye-word: never offend anyone if you can possibly help it, and the way to do this is, especially when you have a “warhorse” opera which comes with a baggage of expectations, stick with a broadly traditional rendition, to the point of blandness. I love this opera, and have seen many performances with Jim — I have in the house a full thick yellow book of the script and musical score he would read to himself. One stands out in my memory aired on PBS around Christmas time at least 15 years ago, also a live staged opera performance filmed. it was very funny, but it was also warm, emotional, with the characters complex while corresponding to satiric and opera types.

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A typical stiff screen shot of the group

In this production, you could be forgiven if you took the first half to have been rewritten by Rossini. It was not quite all dense farce, because you cannot omit the Countess’s melancholy aria, but one wondered where that came from. The singer, Amanda Majeski as the Countess, had a frozen face throughout the opera with her mouth held just so to make the notes exquisitely right, but as to any expression of emotion on her face, forget it. I didn’t blame her as Isabel Leonard playing Cherubino had a similarly frozen expression on her face: salacious wit had she none. Jim used to say his favorite character in the opera was Cherubino: this performance allowed no ambiguities because it had no complexities: she was simply scared or “in love” with Barbarina (Ying Fang). There was not a single scene which suggested intimacy with the countess. I usually dislike saying an actress-singer is too old for the part, but the way Marlis Peterson as Susannah was directed, she really came across as a stiff vexed tired servant:

SusannaCherubino
Leonard referred to “my” countess, but there was little intimacy between Cherubino and the countess; rather the pair were Susannah and Cherubino somehow working at something

As Susannah she was glad of a rest once in a while (as if she were Anna Smith Bate in Downton Abbey) when with the countess or her protective Figaro, played as broadly as Majeski and Leonard did theirs by Ildar Abdrazakov. I saw him last year as the Ivor in Prince Borodin and know he can do better. The only performer to escape this Rossini farce vise was Mattei and I had to wonder was if the result was to vindicate the proud amoral count Beaumarchais’s play and Mozart’s opera were meant to expose and ridicule.

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Peter Mattei during his opera — most of the time he was directed to look like a 1930s kind of lout

The second act was much better. Both leading men had arias with depths of emotion as they expressed their versions of manliness under travail (Mattei especially good at indignation and anger), and with this music still lingering, Majeski’s aria alone and then writing the letter with Peterson as Susanna (exquisitely lovely music) had resonance. The pace ironically was slower as if the director worried if they moved too fast we, a presumed dim audience, would not understand who and what was being mixed up in the night. The roundabout stage was moved back and forth as a kind of underlining as the characters worked to make it clear who had the wrong costume and veil on.

The putting the characters in 1930s outfits changed nothing of the meaning of the opera — as the use of Frank Sinatra and his crew’s stereotypes similarly changed nothing of Rigoletto last year: even deliberately lost some of the bite as the disabled condition of the hunchback was underplayed. In the San Francisco production Porgy is a cripple and for better and worse treated as such.

The most genuine moments in this HD film came in the intermission. When Renee Fleming had hyped and flattered to the point of embarrassment, Abradazkov suddenly said the experience of playing together in practice had been boring. This was turned around to be an ironic joke — of course he didn’t mean that. But it did stop Fleming in her tracks of adulation. There was a film of James Levine interviewed by Gelb in a chair built to enable Levine to sit up: Levine’s shook slightly as he talked and he noticed, this so began to hold them firm to stop their wandering. He tried to discuss this group of performers and production in plain language, all the while looking like a man who been through death, and lives with it daily and nightly.

Audiences matter in a live performance. The Met audience was the usual New York City crowd. There were no outbursts of ravishment during the production and the applause at the end while strong (after all tickets cost), had nothing to suggest anything special had happened. It hadn’t. Inside our movie-house theater, people weren’t applauding all that much, many were getting up to leave.

In the San Franciso audience though I did see something to remark: it was troubling to me to see that I could not spot one African-American or black person in the theater. Yvette offered the explanation that we rarely see black people at the opera; and perhaps it was too expensive, maybe less black people live in San Francisco than we realize. But in my experience when a work has only a few black cast members who are central this will attract black people to become part of their audience. Owens said in his candid way in his interview on-line he has become so used to performing with all white casts, he begins to forget everyone around him is white and now to perform with an all-black cast brought home to him his forgetting. (I’d use the word unconscious self-alienation: when I lived in the UK for a couple of years, similarly American accents began to sound funny to me, yet I still had an American accent, if it was gradually being changed by Yorkshire rhythms and vowels. And would have more had I stayed.) I know young black people will have read Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin so white art can become part of their classics. Does Porgy and Bess not speak to black Americans? the way it was directed and performed every effort was made to transcend the stereotypes and produce something fresh.

Ellen

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