Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Blues at the White House

With Sandy threatening outside, I used the last two days to catch up on some of the TV shows I've recorded over the past few months but never made time to watch. After polishing off the remaining episodes of Copper, I watched three of Hit and Miss, enough to tell I wasn't going to waste four hours of my life on the the four left on my DVR. Last night, I watched the three episodes of The Walking Dead that have aired so far this season.

And then, this afternoon, I went from the ridiculous to the sublime and finished the PBS broadcast "Red White and Blues," broadcast in February as part of the series In Performance at the White House.

 Actually, it wasn't all sublime.

Craggy-faced Mick Jagger, still prancing around the stage in leather jacket and red shoes though he's nearly 70, sent me to the fast forward button. But there was plenty to make up for Jagger's aging pixie act: Buddy Guy, Gary Clark, Jr., Keb Mo, Shemekia Copeland, and the master, B.B. King--almost 90, and still able to wring worlds of emotion from a single note.

What stuck with me, though, long after I turned off the TV, was the two full-length portraits of George and Martha Washington on either side of the stage.

For a moment, I wished it were possible to ask the Father of our Country what he thought of the motley, mulatto crew of musicians and their wailing electric guitars. And what would he have made of Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, son of an African father and paradoxically descended from American slaves on his (white) mother's side?

It was one of those times where I wished Ralph Ellison, gone these long 18 years, was still here to divine the meaning of that particularly American moment.

Friday, August 3, 2012

But I Was So Much Older Then. . .

The other day as I walked past my son's room, he looked up from the camp stool seat he was weaving (Boy Scout project) and said, "Hey, what do you know about Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band?" So I asked him whether he'd found some Beefheart among my music he's loaded onto his iPod Touch; I'd had had some albums years ago, but I was pretty sure I'd never bought any CDs.

Turns out though he had headphones on, he wasn't listening to Safe as Milk. Instead, he was listening to an audio book, I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President. The author, Josh Lieb, must be fan of Don Van Vliet (the captain's real name), for the four or five paragraphs about him include a tribute to Trout Mask Replica.

Anyway, the mention in Lieb's book inspired my son to look for music by Captain Beefheart on Mog. He found some songs, but he was disappointed he couldn't find Trout Mask Replica.

It's been interesting watching--and occasionally singing along in the car--as my son discovers the music I listened to when I was in my teens. Last Halloween, he dressed up as Jimi Hendrix, and he's been taking lessons at School of Rock. So far, he's played in three concerts. Here's a song from the most recent one in June:

One of the neatest things about being a parent is watching your child discover new things. It's incredible to watch him having fun on stage. And just think of all the music (new and old) he has yet to hear for the first time!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Something to Celebrate

Robert Gossett
 I flew out to Denver a little while ago to hear my story, "A Few Good Men," read by actor Robert Gossett, as part of a program presented by Stories on Stage. Stories on Stage is just what it sounds like--nine programs each year where actors read stories. The season's over, and the link might not be up much longer, but here it is anyway: http://storiesonstage.org/stories.aspx.

"A Few Good Men" was selected for Best African American Fiction 2010, but its road to print was anything but straight and easy. I wrote the story years ago, so long ago, in fact, that I've forgotten just when. My agent liked it enough to send it to Playboy. The fiction editor there liked it too; at least she said so in her rejection letter. She also said she'd come close to accepting it, but Playboy preferred its women to be more romantic.

My agent then sent it to Emerge, a magazine published in the '90s that's now defunct. There, the editor said he liked the story, and would consider publishing it if I'd rewrite it to include a black woman's viewpoint.

I didn't agree that the story needed rewriting, but I understood his reluctance.

"A Few Good Men" is about men in a barbershop talking about women. I wrote it because I didn't recognize the black men in stories and novels by black women writers like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Ntozake Shange.

And I certainly didn't find in their work men like my grandfather, who for more than 30 years walked downtown to his job as an electrician and then home again in the evening. After dinner, he walked to a second job cleaning two doctors' offices. On the weekends, he did handyman jobs for neighbors.

He had to, to feed and clothe his eight children and pay the mortgage on the house he bought in 1928. 

Eventually, "A Few Good Men" found a home in Rick Peabody's anthology Stress City: A Big Book of Fiction by 51 D.C. Guys. And from there, Gerald Early and Nikki Giovanni chose it for Best African American Fiction 2010. A copy of which, serendipitously, made it to the desk of Stories on Stage's artistic director.

It was an amazing, heady experience hearing a professional actor read my work. Robert Gossett (Lou Gossett's cousin) made each of my characters, even the minor ones, vivid and distinct. At one point, I found myself on the edge of my seat holding my breath, almost as if I hadn't written it and didn't know what was coming.

It got even better, though: After Gossett finished, I was introduced.

I'd taken books by the poets Melvin Tolson and Robert Hayden to read while I was in Denver. Tolson I found, well, too obscure, but I liked much of Hayden's work.

One poem, "Those Winter Sundays," stuck with me. It's about a father getting up early on Sunday to light a fire to warm the house, and the son's indifference to his father's sacrifice. It ends:

"What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?"

I could have stolen those lines for "A Few Good Men."

Energized by the trip to Denver, I've gone back to working on my book about my family. I'd count it a success if I could come up with one or two lines as good as Hayden's.

Friday, February 24, 2012

"Downton Abbey" in Black and White

Somewhere in Hollywood, there might be someone looking at the recent success of PBS's "Downton Abbey"--the last episode of the final season gained more than 5 million viewers--and wondering about the possibility of an American remake.

And why not an American version of the show about a family of aristocrats and their servants in the English countryside before and after World War I? Over the past few years, appropriating foreign successes ("American Idol," "The Office," "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") has become almost a Hollywood tradition.

Except. . .

It was done nearly 75 years ago, and "Downton Abbey" is really just "Gone With the Wind" in white face. Both are lavish costume dramas whose idealized, romantic setting is changed forever by war. And, of course, (white) plantation culture of the antebellum South was a conscious attempt to imitate gracious English living.

I watched and enjoyed "Downton Abbey," bingeing on the entire two seasons (14 episodes) on successive days, courtesy of Netflix streaming and PBS's iPad app. I confess to some small embarrassment at writing that. But then, I grew up in the West Indies when it was the British West Indies. And, once a colonial, always a colonial.

Still, though I enjoyed the show--and intend to watch the third season next year--"Downton Abbey" (like "Gone with the Wind") didn't seem quite honest in its serene depictions of the inherently unequal relationships between upper and lower classes. It seems unlikely to me that aristocrats and their servants were as intimate as "Downton Abbey" would have them; just as it seems unlikely to me that Mammy, Priss, and the other black characters in "Gone With the Wind" were really all that happy being slaves.

I started writing this as a kind of thought experiment, imagining an American "Downton Abbey" set in the South before the Civil War. Morgan Freeman would be the butler and Denzel Washington the valet, which was as far as I got with the casting. Spike Lee probably wouldn't want to direct, but Tyler Perry might, as long as he could get his name above the title. Oh, and he'd want to write it and be in it too.

In some ways, though, he'd be be the least of the problems. How to, for example, translate Downton Abbey's relationship between the Irish chauffer and the lord of the manor's youngest daughter?

A good scriptwriter might find a way around the problem, forthrightly addressing still-painful aspects of our shared history. And history is full of surprises.

Researching my own family history, I discovered a great-great-great-great-great-grandfather who bought his freedom and his family's. Eventually, he emigrated to Liberia with his wife. Before he went, though, he wanted his family to be able to read and write, so he hired a white woman from the North. And to get around the laws that prohibited whites from teaching blacks to read and write, he somehow persuaded her to pretend to be a fair-skinned black from New Orleans.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Flight Time

If I'd paid attention to my former Washington Post colleague Courtland Milloy, I would have said no when my 11-year-old said he wanted to see Red Tails, the new movie about the Tuskegee Airmen. Courtland saw the movie. He hated it. He hated it so much, in fact, he wrote a column about how bad the picture was.

Fortunately, I didn't pay attention to Courtland's column, and my son and I went to see the movie a couple of weeks ago. To be sure, Red Tails isn't as good as, say, Glory, the 1989 film about black soldiers in the Civil War. But then Glory had stars like Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, while Red Tails has Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrence Howard, two actors on the downhill slope of their careers.

George Lucas--who financed Red Tails himself when he couldn't find Hollywood backers--has said he wanted to make a throwback to pictures like Flying Leathernecks, a 1951 movie starring (who else?) John Wayne. And he succeeded. Red Tails is a gorgeous movie with breath-taking computer generated dog-fights, but a perfunctory plot and little character development.

Considered as the picture Lucas wanted to make, Red Tails is pretty darn good. And, the thing is, there aren't that many movies about the history of blacks in the U.S. armed forces. A quick search found this write-up, which lists 19 pictures, but doesn't include 1984's A Soldier's Story, which also stars Washington, billed below David Alan Grier!, or The Negro Soldier, a Frank Capra propaganda film made to encourage blacks to enlist during World War II.

And, flaws aside, Red Tails was a great opportunity to talk afterwards with my son--who, by the way, has met two Tuskegee Airmen, and has a book autographed by one--about the rich history of blacks in the military from Crispus Attucks to the present.

Monday, October 24, 2011

And for My 70th Birthday. . .

When he turned 50, one of my oldest friends--we were roommates freshman year in college--jumped out of an airplane. For my 60th--I can't say I planned it, but it's as good a reason as any for doing it--I biked the C&O Canal towpath, nearly 185 miles from Cumberland, Md., to Washington, D.C.*

Writing this a few days afterwards, I feel better than I'd imagined I would when I was planning the trip this summer. I'd gotten a great new bike last year, a Cannondale Quick CX Ultra, but back problems and bronchitis kept me from doing much riding that summer. And though I went into the winter with the best intentions, once it got cold the bike stayed in my office. In April, when I finally got back on it, I went two-and-a-half miles before I had to turn back, completely winded.

Once I'd talked my friend Bob into doing the C&O Canal with me, I started to train. Early in the summer, I rode 35 miles one morning, the longest I'd ever gone. A few weeks later, I developed knee problems, which meant cutting back how much I rode. But at least the two orthopedists I consulted didn't tell me to give up riding completely.

I wasn't entirely convinced I'd be able to finish the trip, but my wife drove Bob and me to Cumberland on a recent Thursday morning anyway. After a few unseen delays--the purchase of a commemorative jersey at a bike shop; adjustment of the new grips on Bob's bike--we waved goodbye and took off. We rode about 45 miles to Little Orleans that first day and another 45 to Williamsport the second. From there, it was about 40 miles to Harpers Ferry.

The end of that third day was the worst of the trip. Not because I was tired or my legs hurt or I was thinking about the 60 miles we had to ride the next day. I was, they did, and I was. But what was truly awful was that the only way to get across the Potomac River to the hot shower and soft bed I so desperately craved was to climb a narrow set of twisting stairs with my fully loaded bike.

But I made it up the stairs (and back down again the next morning) and Bob and I made it to Washington. I feel pretty proud of myself for doing something I never thought I'd be able to. That is, until I think about the avid cyclist the innkeeper at Little Orleans told us about. He rode from Washington to Cumberland and back to Little Orleans--about 225 miles--all in one day.

It's something to aspire to.

*Now, the full disclosure implied by the asterisk above. I didn't really ride the entire 184.5 miles of the C&O Canal towpath from Cumberland to Washington. About a half-mile from the end, I got a flat near 31st Street in Georgetown. Since my wife was only 10 minutes away, I decided not to be a purist. But it wouldn't have mattered anyway: A few tenths of a mile ahead, the towpath was blocked by a chain-link fence.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Family History

Since I finished my novel more than a year ago, I've been working on a family history/memoir. (I'm pretty sure it's not going to be a memoir/family history.) For most of the time, I've been transcribing family letters. Members of my family have lived in the same house since 1929, and as people came and went over the years, they left behind things they probably intended to come back for but never did.

It's meant for a full attic.

In August, I went down to the South Carolina town one set of grandparents came from. I'd always intended to finish the research before I begin to write--making notes along the way, of course, so that I wouldn't forget important ideas. When I came back from the South, though, I was so excited by what I'd found in libraries and archives I decided I had to write while it still burned in me.

As part of my research, I've been reading a book called "History of the American Negro and his Institutions, South Carolina Edition." A kind of "Who's Who," it was published in 1919 by a man named Arthur Bunyan Caldwell. I don't know much about the history of the book, but Caldwell published seven volumes covering five Southern states and the District of Columbia. (One state may have taken up two volumes.) Each book includes profiles of about 300 prominent black men. There are a few women--four in the South Carolina volume.

With something like 5,000 family letters to transcribe, it's not as if I don't have enough to do. But I decided to go through Caldwell's South Carolina book a few days ago, making a count of the people profiled, their occupations and whether they'd been born before the end of the Civil War.

Interestingly, only about 75 were born before the end of the Civil War. Most of those, of course, were born in slavery, though a few had been free. Most of the men were preachers, the majority Baptists, followed by African Methodist Episcopalians. But there were doctors, lawyers, dentists, school teachers, college professors and college presidents. There were businessmen, farmers, leaders of fraternal organizations, undertakers, and insurance salesmen. One woman was a doctor, another a nurse.

A year or so ago, when I told a friend (she's white) about a relative who'd been a lawyer and college professor and administrator in the South in the late 1800s and early 1900s, she asked, "Was his wife white?" I laughed and said, "Of course not." Still, though I'm heir to that history, I never imagined then the variety I'd find in Caldwell's book.

Of course, the men and women he profiled weren't typical of black South Carolinians in 1919. They'd worked hard, seized opportunities, been lucky. In the process of getting college educations, going to medical school, and buying land, they endured privations and humiliations most of us can't imagine. When Caldwell allows them to speak, they are too often accommodationist in the Booker T. Washington vein. They had to be, of course.

Nonetheless, their example and their achievements speak powerfully across the years. Sarah Palin? Rick Perry? Michelle Bachmann? John Boehner? We've survived worse; we'll survive them too.