Quote for Today: James McBride


It was always so hot, and everyone was so polite, and everything was all surface but underneath it was like a bomb waiting to go off. I always felt that way about the South, that beneath the smiles and southern hospitality and politeness were a lot of guns and liquor and secrets.
James McBride, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother

Public Domain Image: Vivian Malone, one of the first African Americans to attend the University of Alabama

Dawn without Memory: ISIS in Palmyra

Last May, the Islamic State took the ancient city of Palmyra. Why should we care that it is being destroyed?

© Julian Love/Corbis Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

© Julian Love/Corbis
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

ISIS doesn’t have a good track record with UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Nimrud, Nineveh, and now Palmyra have been destroyed under its rule, creating a storm of publicity and engendering hate and fear. Explosives and sledgehammers have met irreplaceable works of art and left them dust, on the grounds that they are idolatrous. Yes, many of these buildings were sacred to ancient gods, gods who are largely forgotten. So why should modern humanity mourn the loss? We believe in completely different gods. Some of us believe in no gods at all.

Tadmor Village within the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, early 20th Century Public Domain Image

Tadmor Village within the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, early 20th Century
Public Domain Image

Suppose that we were to go back in time and systematically destroy any people that worshipped or thought differently than we do. As we go further and further back, we encounter people that are more and more different from us. We find ancestors before they lost or found faith, we find brothers before they took different paths and became the patriarchs of different cultures. To destroy them would mean that we were never born.

To single out groups for obliteration is to deny part of the human story, to remove the memory of nations and their people from the tapestry of history. The human family is all connected. Believer or nonbeliever, we would not be who we are without the influence of many different peoples and faiths. We have always needed one another and continue to do so. Denying this feeds the absolute worst in our already tribal understanding of the world: that we, and people like us, contain the only viable understanding, and anyone else is worth less than we are. This lies behind every type of racism on the globe.

The scariest thing about ISIS is that they take destruction to a new level. This is not a group that will keep the art and riches of the defeated, but one that will destroy every trace of the enemy, even if the “enemy” has been dead for centuries. The destruction of Palmyra is a warning to civilizations living today that practice life differently than ISIS. A warning that they would like to kill you and then remove any trace that you have ever lived from our world. There was a culture in Europe once that had a similar dream. Thank God it is not yet within our grasp as human beings.

© Martin Schmoda Temple of Bel Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

© Manfred Schmoda
Temple of Bel, now destroyed
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Temple of Baal Shamin, Palmyra © Jerry Strzelecki with CCLicense

Temple of Baal Shamin, Palmyra, now destroyed
© Jerry Strzelecki with CCLicense

© AFP used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

© AFP used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Want to know more about Palmyra? Check out the UNESCO entry here.

The Tragedy of Roots: To a Dancer by Katherine McDaniel

Dance can circumvent words and create bonds across cultures. Could we allow the empathy it creates guide our daily lives?

Sattriya Dancer, India © Subhrajit with CCLicense

Sattriya Dancer, India
© Subhrajit with CCLicense

To a Dancer is a poem I wrote for a variety show that took place last weekend here in Houston, Mosaic Hub‘s Chocolate Soiree. It was lovely to be able to read my work for a paying audience and wonderful to be followed by a pair of wonderful dancers, Helena Tokarew and Chris Simon. Their smoldering performance gave this piece an added dimension.

In To A Dancer, a girl is mesmerized by the dance of a community alien to her own. She recognizes the energy, kindness and love embodied by a particular dancer, as well as the sense of belonging and place conferred on him by the dance. She would love to join in, but fears that her participation would be misinterpreted, both by members of her community and his.

There are so many motivations swirling under the surface of this girl. She is below the dancer’s notice, foreign to his circle, a child just beginning to feel the first surges of feminine emotion and hormones. This saves her, for now, from the embarrassment of being discovered. She is intrigued by his otherness, by the close nature of his community during the dance and by the beauty of his body. There is a sense of incipient sexuality, something which she hasn’t yet understood. If she allows herself to dream and, miraculously, her feelings are later returned, this could be the beginning of a cross culture romance.

For today she is merely a girl who would love to belong and to be able to trust. Will that trust betray her tomorrow, or will it lead her to a world in which cultures may coexist and share with one another?

Reacting to Fear: Mary Engelbreit’s In the USA

Creativity can help us through uncomfortable emotions and thoughts. What happens when these personal visions strike a nerve with others?

© Anil kumar with CCLicense

© Anil kumar with CCLicense

Mary Engelbreit is a children’s book illustrator and author from St. Louis, MO, USA, who started her career as a designer of greeting cards. Her delightful books of brain teasers, projects and recipes for kids, her fairytales and seasonal storybooks and her collections of poetry and scripture have created quite a following and earned her a reputation as the Norman Rockwell of our time. Her work is known for its gentle and cheerful nature, so one might be surprised to hear Engelbreit’s name mentioned in connection with controversy.

A few days ago, Engelbreit posted a new work to Facebook. In the USA was inspired by the killing of teenager Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, a suburb of her hometown, and the volatile situation that has resulted from it. All proceeds from the work are to go to Brown’s Memorial Fund. Comments were largely positive, but some people felt the need to attack. From those who felt she was being un-American, to those who accused her of making profit from tragedy, to those who could not believe that she was siding with a criminal and giving money to his undeserving family, things got very ugly. So ugly in fact, that Facebook stepped in and pulled In the USA from her wall because it had been deemed offensive (they did later reinstate the post). So what does this earth shaking, saber rattling piece of art look like?

Wait, what? This sweet, chubby-cheeked mother and child is the subject of viperous rants?

Perhaps critics are vitriolic because they expect an author that writes for impressionable children to stay out of the way and to keep her subject matter light. Engelbreit has said that she uses her art to work through things that bother her, but doesn’t release most of those personal pieces to the public. This time she must have felt that she could do something to help the situation by voicing her empathy. It should be noted that Engelbreit lost a son, Evan, in 2000, when he was shot and killed at the age of nineteen. Seeing Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, on television brought back memories of a terrible time in her own life.

I hope we can all agree that the state of affairs in Ferguson challenges adults to explain the realities of violence and racism to children and young people. I’d venture to say that most people reading this blog have never had to put their hands in the air and ask not to be shot, but it can and does happen in the United States, especially for minorities and for those who don’t have the respect that money seems to buy. It is terrifying to realize how easy it is to revert to fear and suspicion of those different from us and it certainly isn’t un-American to wonder how we can approach equality and safety for everyone. Silence is perhaps the worst approach, as it encourages those who follow us to avert their eyes and turn off their empathy. We are already too far down that road.

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Art often hits us at a more visceral level than words, speaking directly to the inmost parts of ourselves, places that don’t respond to reason and argument, but to symbols. In addition to breaking the silence and shattering the illusion that everything is fine, there are connotations in In The USA that are extremely provocative. The choice of mother and son calls up images of the Madonna and Child, a subject for countless artists for the past two thousand years. Depictions of Mother Mary holding Jesus are woven throughout Western history, fusing with the memories we have of our own mothers. Adding to the unique and sacred nature of the bond between mother and child, they tell of a God who could have approached humanity in fear and retribution but chose instead to empathize and become like us. Whether or not an individual believes in such a God the archetype remains valid– the one who makes things better for everyone else by dying. To make things more intense, this mother is crying and the child has his hands up in a gesture that isn’t so different from the crucifixion. These are things we might expect from a Stabat Mater or Pietà, a depiction of Christ’s death. Engelfreit has, intentionally or not, invoked two incredibly powerful archetypes, the grieving Mother and the dying Savior.

In the USA is a brave piece, as is any artwork that tries to make sense of violence. It is exceptionally tidy and decent, but that doesn’t mitigate its impact. Part of the legacy of racism is that many of those who have practiced it will do anything to keep from the embarrassment of being exposed, often becoming adept at rationalizing and hiding it from themselves as well as others. Art like this calls that kind of behavior out. We may feel shame for what we have done or what we have not done. At that point, we can share our disgust and admit our mistakes or we can hit out in fear at anyone who makes us feel wrong. Fear often wins. But it doesn’t have to.

Want to know more?

St Louis Public Radio


You can purchase a print of In the USA here.

Be It Ever So Humble: The Southern Shotgun House

Houston, TX Fifth Ward

Houston, TX
Fifth Ward
Public Domain Image by NARA

Society has a tendency to write off working class neighborhoods as lacking in creativity and artistry. Are we missing something?

Vernacular architecture is that which uses local construction materials to create structures that fulfill local needs and reflect local traditions, rather than shipping in materials and designs to create something more cosmopolitan. There is often beauty and satisfying frugality in even the simplest of these forms and it seems a shame that globalization should obliterate them. On the other hand, interesting things can happen when traditions merge and are shared–think of Moorish influences in Spain.

Shotgun House, New Orleans, LA, USA after Hurricane Katrina  © Infrogmation with CCLicense

Shotgun House, New Orleans, LA, after Hurricane Katrina
© Infrogmation with CCLicense

“You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack”

Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime

Shotgun house floor plan  © Susan Murray with CCLicense

Shotgun house floor plan
© Susan Murray with CCLicense

The shotgun house was the most popular type of house in the Southern United States from the end of the Civil War through the 1920s. Frequently no more than twelve feet wide, with an exterior door in front and another in back and one room following the next without hallways, these homes were designed to save space and to allow people to live close to the workplace in an era before the automobile had taken hold. American cities were growing as people immigrated from rural areas and foreign countries in response to the promise of the American dream. More housing was needed quickly and it couldn’t cost an arm and a leg.

The first shotgun houses were built in New Orleans, Louisiana, where, at the time, taxation was based on lot frontage. The wider the lot, the higher the taxes paid. Many of these homes were built and occupied by Haitian refugees. Historians believe that the origin of the design itself may be Caribbean or West African, although earlier generations seemed loathe to acknowledge these roots, especially as the shotgun was replicated all over the country. At first this came from unwillingness to recognize the creativity and industry of people of African descent, later, after the style went out of fashion, it deepened into a desire to ignore these houses and the people who lived in them. Even today that stigma remains, although there is some appreciation for the historic importance of these buildings and their contribution to the American dream and to humanity in general. This is leading to the renovation of some of these classic homes.

New Orleans © Karen Apricot with CCLicense

New Orleans
© Karen Apricot with CCLicense

A builder often put up an entire block of shotgun houses at once, creating a number of identical domiciles, simple and inexpensive, which could be improved and decorated by the occupants. From exquisitely crafted wood and stone work to coats of bright paint, there is no lack of imagination or variety in their ornamentation, which may feature Classical or Victorian flourishes. This provided not only a way for people to show pride and love for their homes, but also a way for them to proclaim their financial success and stability. Originally some of these homes would have been trimmed with African motifs, but, sadly, those have been quietly replaced with more “polite” and “acceptable” decorations. What richness of history have we lost?

New Orleans © Karen Apricot with CCLicense

New Orleans
© Karen Apricot with CCLicense

Legend has it that spirits are drawn to these houses because they can pass right through them, leading some builders to vary the original design by staggering the doors to confuse wandering souls. So much for popular wisdom that the incorporeal can walk through walls. This might also be the origin of the term shotgun house, since, if all the doors were open, a bullet fired in the front door would leave by the back door. Everything about these houses is colorful!

Shotgun houses were one of the first designs in the United States to feature a porch. Neighbors, who were already living in close proximity, would gather on these porches, creating a close knit community that modern day suburbia can’t even imagine.

Mobile, AL, USA © Jeffrey Reed with CCLicense

Mobile, AL
© Jeffrey Reed with CCLicense

Some shotgun houses feature a two story area in the rear of the house. These are known as camelback houses.

© Infrogmation with CCLicense

New Orleans
© Infrogmation with CCLicense

Another variation on the shotgun house was the double, or double-barrel, shotgun house. Two homes share a central wall, allowing two families to be housed on a single lot. It’s an early form of the modern duplex.

New Orleans © Infrogmation with CCLicense

New Orleans
© Infrogmation with CCLicense

The shotgun design was certainly not limited to New Orleans, but flourished in hot and humid climates before the advent of air conditioning. If the doors were left open, a breeze could cool down the entire house, supposing it was blowing in the right direction. This easy ventilation is even more important in models that lack side windows, as some of the earliest did.

These fascinating buildings deserve to be cherished not only for their place in history, but because they have been and continue to be home.

Little Rock, AR, USA

Little Rock, AR
Public Domain Image via wikimedia

Louisville, KY, USA

Louisville, KY
Public Domain Image via Wikimedia

The birthplace of Elvis Presley Tupelo, MS, USA

The birthplace of Elvis Presley
Tupelo, MS
Public Domain Image via Wikimedia

There Ain’t No Place That Far: Disney’s Song of the South, 1946

History is not dead, but is constantly reinterpreted through the arts. Can we relate to earlier interpretations despite their controversy?

Song of the South, produced by Walt Disney for RKO Pictures in 1946, was one of the first films to combine live action with animation, allowing actors to interact with imaginary characters. Audiences had been delighted the year before by the sight of Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry Mouse in Anchors Aweigh, so the time was ripe for a film that made extensive use of this novel technique. Unfortunately, Song of the South would become more famous for its controversial picture of race relations than for its beautiful cutting edge technology. To date, Disney has not released the film on video in the United States.

Brer_Bear_and_Brer_Fox,_1881Walt Disney had been interested in Joel Chandler Harris‘s Stories of Uncle Remus for years. Joe Harris was a journalist in Atlanta who championed racial reconciliation during the Reconstruction period after the American Civil War. As Joel Chandler Harris, he published numerous stories collected and inspired from African American folklore, seeking to preserve evidence of a period of time that he feared history would distort.

Little Johnny’s father in Song of the South is no doubt patterned after Harris, as he also works for a newspaper in Atlanta, where he writes pieces that stir people up and make them angry. Even his wife is exasperated with him. We are never told the exact nature of his work, but are kept with Johnny in a magical bubble protected from adult reality. All we know is that things have gotten too hot in Atlanta for Johnny and his mother, who seek refuge at the plantation owned by his paternal grandmother. This is the first of many such omissions that make the film difficult to swallow, especially for modern audiences. In fact, the film does precisely what Harris, dead since 1908, had feared. It whitewashes history and fills it with awkward silences.

402px-Joel_Chandler_Harris_(%22Uncle_Remus%22)Some scholars have pointed fingers at Harris, saying he was a white writer of limited skill who stole stories from the African American community and used them for his own gain. “Harris went to the world as the trickster Brer Rabbit, and in the trickster Uncle Remus he projected both his sharpest critique of things as they were and the deepest image of his heart’s desire,” said critic Robert Cochran. Was his motivation to steal from African American culture or was it to join with its dissenting voice to satirize and disparage a southern oligarchy that he despised? Harris grew up an orphaned son of immigrants and spent his teenage years working on a plantation, where he felt more comfortable in the slave’s quarters than among Southern whites. He did not write kindly of the Southern gentleman and dared to speak positively about intermarriage between races, which was considered criminal at the time and referred to by the pejorative term “miscegenation“. Reading his stories today, one might balk at the use of dialect and stereotypes, but, for his time, Harris was on the progressive side of history. Even in 1946 his leanings were not exactly mainstream.

The original screenplay for Song of the South was written by Dalton Reymond, who hailed from the South, specifically Louisiana. It was the story of Johnny, a young boy on the verge of running away because of tension he perceives between his parents, who is comforted by the stories of Uncle Remus, an elderly African American who befriends him. When Remus’s stories inspire Johnny to disobey his mother in order to help a poor white sharecropper’s daughter, mother orders the old man to leave the plantation, with disastrous effects that almost cost Johnny’s life. This story, built to couch Harris’s fables, is tepid and preachy, while Uncle Remus’s “critters” seem much more immediate and exciting.

Video clip via Aidan Ralph on YouTube.

Fearing that Reymond’s work might be too conservative, Disney hired left-leaning Maurice Rapf to rework the piece. Rapf didn’t initially want to do it; he was afraid the piece would be in the mode of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, full of racial stereotypes. He was later fired from the film after a squabble with Reymond, which proved his own misgivings correct as well as those of Disney. In 1947, Rapf was blacklisted for having been a member of the Communist party and his career in Hollywood ended. The uneasy relationship between Rapf and Reymond contributed to omissions and incongruities in the film as they continually vetoed each other’s ideas.

399px-Brer_Rabbit_and_the_Tar_BabySo why did the stories of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear appeal to Americans after World War II? These are fables that show how a small character, quick on his feet and sharp-witted (Rabbit), can defeat a conniving and wicked one (Fox) paired with a large, stupid bully (Bear). This philosophy encouraged one of the more hopeful currents prevailing in the American psyche: that the United States had outfoxed the Germans, Japanese and Italians and brought World War II to an end. As Uncle Remus says at the beginning of the film, “Them what can’t learn from a tale about critters, just ain’t got their ears tuned for listening.” The moral here is that any means of defeating an evil enemy is justified, even if it requires doing something “tricky” like the irrepressible and ever lovable Br’er Rabbit. And yet Uncle Remus warns that Rabbit wouldn’t get himself into trouble if he didn’t go looking for it. Could there be isolationist sentiment along with war time guilt brewing somewhere under the surface of this children’s film? If so, it certainly hid these things with a happy smile.

Video clip via MegaRock64 on YouTube.

The stories of Uncle Remus are entertaining, beautifully shot and animated, as are the musical numbers. Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, which went to filming before it had been blocked, is a incredible classic, with animated animals as back-up to James Baskett‘s heartfelt singing. It won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1946 and was something of an unofficial anthem for the Disney Studios for many years. The imagination and confident ease with which Baskett delivered the song, clearly visualizing animals who had not yet been placed in the scene, is a true marvel and testament to his acting and performing genius. It is the animator’s skill, the lively voicing of Rabbit, Fox, and Bear, and Baskett’s loving portrayal of Remus, despite the stereotypical nature of the role, that render this film watchable and give it its best moments.

220px-Uncle_Remus_Disney_screenshotIn a cruel turn of events, Baskett was not able to attend opening night of Song of the South because Atlanta was segregated and no hotel would book an African American. To his credit, Walt Disney actively campaigned for an Oscar for Baskett, revealing that the actor frequently worked without direction and praising him as one of the finest actors with whom he had ever worked. In 1948, James Baskett became the first African American man to win an Oscar, which he received in honor of his portrayal of Uncle Remus and voicing of Br’er Fox two years earlier. Less than six months later he was dead of heart disease at the age of 44. 

472px-CottonNegrosSouthSong of the South can be applauded for making the case that white Americans have something to learn from African Americans, however clumsily it did so. These folk tales, which came from people that had endured oppression, had a great deal of value to a nation recovering from war. What is awkward is that the film wants to acknowledge that wisdom without recognizing the oppression. Set during Reconstruction, the film presents happy-go-lucky sharecroppers who sing and dance and get along with their former masters with hardly a hint of strife. This is not realistic. Slavery did not end quickly and easily at the close of the Civil War. The attitudes that made slavery possible still persist in some areas. Slaves that were freed often found themselves doing backbreaking work for little pay and less respect under bosses who still looked at them as slaves and were frustrated that the government no longer supported that view. Uncle Remus comes across as a magical character rather than a plausible portrait of an African American male living in post Civil War Georgia, a strange cross between a grandfather and a fairy. Perhaps the most baffling moment occurs when Remus tells Johnny that there was a better time in the past, when man was closer to nature. This nostalgia coming from a freed slave seems misplaced and insensitive and doesn’t agree with the film’s narrative. Aren’t these the good times at the magic plantation? Perhaps this is an artifact of Rapf’s left-wing sympathies telling us that all is not well.

This is not the only difficulty. If we accept that Johnny’s father, like Harris, is a man who writes about racial inequality in the south, then why is he presented in such a poor light for sticking to his writing and staying behind in Atlanta? Grandmother, who we are told likes the things he writes in the papers, cheers him on at the end when he abandons his post to care for his own family, giving up his inflammatory journalism. Apparently standing up for other’s rights is not a worthy cause if doing so threatens your own family. Then again, there is no racial conflict at the magic plantation, so an escape to that reality provides a convenient end to the story.


The Poor People’s March, 1968

If we learn anything from America in 1946, let it be that hardship brings people of different backgrounds closer together. In the decades since we have come to understand that we only remain together if there is appreciation and understanding for who we are without that particular hardship. When the emergency is over, we have to deal with the difficulties that still exist. Fables, which evolve as human understanding changes, are not an escape from reality, but a preparation for it. As Uncle Remus tells Johnny, “You can’t run away from trouble. There ain’t no place that far.”

All images used in this post are either Public Domain or are used in accordance with Fair Use Policy.

When the Spirit Moves: Creativity and Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech

403px-Martin_Luther_King_press_conference_01269u_editFifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and uttered words that continue to reverberate in the American consciousness and beyond. That speech, delivered August 28, 1963, was not the speech King had prepared. At the prompting of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, he began to speak extemporaneously about his dream and the foundations of power shook. The following video speaks of the power of those moments.

Video via WSJDigitalNetwork on YouTube.

We are still striving to meet and surpass Dr. King’s beautiful dream. You can hear the “I have a dream” speech in its entirety here. Listen for the pause at 12:03 in which Dr. King makes the decision to go off-book. Powerful.