Friday, August 18, 2017

The Art and Science of American Racism

We stumbled into the Lawrence Arts Center at the tail end of an exhausting weekend. The events in Charlottesville had hypnotized the country for days, and Sarah and I desperately needed something quiet, something aesthetic, not carrying the stench emanating from the upper echelons of American power. We thought surely an art gallery would ease the tensions. We had no idea Iola Jenkins’ textile art would greet us inside.

Jenkins, a self-taught African-American outsider artist, uses a mixture of quilting and embroidery to create dynamic, multicolored images based on her beliefs and experiences. Her textile art includes portraits of Whoopi Goldberg’s character from The Color Purple and activist professor (and sometime fugitive) Angela Davis. She also has pictures of African market days and folk scenes. The depth Jenkins extracts from what look like discarded scraps makes mere paint look one-dimensional and wan.

Sarah and I paused before twinned portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama. Rendered in exceptionally bright colors, the images had a certain quality of a 1990s comic book, but that didn’t undermine their depth. They looked like photographs taken under tinted stage lights, or possibly run through an oversaturated Instagram filter. They captured the energy and potency African-Americans like Jenkins must’ve felt seeing a couple who resembled themselves in Washington.

We stood there, dumbstruck, for several minutes. Both quilts were dated 2015, when President Obama was riding his highest crest of popular support, before the primary election campaign heated up. Jenkins must’ve made these textiles when Donald Trump still looked like a longshot protest candidate, a spoiler meant to agitate a wounded but angry Republican base. She might’ve made them before Trump declared his candidacy. I don’t know.

I threw my hat on the floor.


Many protesters in Charlottesville were unambiguous: they felt emboldened to express their vile opinions because Donald Trump became President. Though it’s overgeneralizing to say Trump caused the Charlottesville violence, his discourse—calling Mexicans rapists, spouting decades-old stereotypes about “the inner city”—emboldened whites who already had racist tendencies to express them. Trump’s failure to condemn people toting swastikas as Nazis hasn’t helped.

Unlike many American prairie communities, Lawrence, Kansas, didn’t spring up spontaneously. Activists from the New England Emigrant Aid Company deliberately founded Lawrence as an abolitionist colony during the Bleeding Kansas fighting, to provide anti-slavery forces an added edge in determining the future state’s future. The city’s main downtown corridor, Massachusetts Street, reflects the city’s abolitionist heritage. As often happens, contemporary attitudes mainly reflect historical foundations.

Historian Ibrahim X. Kendi writes that beliefs tend to follow policy. By this he means that public opinion, on multiple issues but especially race, tends to reflect the ideas floating from the top of politics, economics, and culture. Racism, as we experience it in America, didn’t really exist in pre-colonial Europe. People we’d now consider “white” hated one another and fought violently: French versus English, Spanish versus Portuguese, Germans versus Germans.

After plague and warfare decimated the Native American population, rendering North America fit for colonization, Europe started dumping its undesirable denizens on distant shores. According to Nancy Isenberg, America’s first English settlers weren’t called heroic pioneers at home. The English used colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts to unload what they called “the offscourings of the land.” The word “offscourings” refers to shit that clings to your ass and needs wiped off with paper.

England bound this goulash of beggars, debtors, thieves, and other outcasts together, by telling them: well, at least they weren’t Black. Parliament created policies forcibly separating white settlers from slaves in work, residence, and even food. England initially regarded Indians as whites with extreme tans, until Native pushback against English adventurism turned violent; then policies changed to separate Black, white, and Red. White beliefs accommodated these policies.

So racism became a response to public policy. After the Revolution, when Northern states couldn’t reconcile their rhetoric of freedom with slaveholding, they changed policies to emancipate their Black slaves and white indentured servants. But once the policy of race took hold, nobody could undo it. Northerners still saw themselves as Black, white, and Red. Even abolitionists progressive enough to colonize Lawrence, Kansas, carried the idea of race into their new homes.


Iola Jenkins made her art during a time when it appeared the legacies of colonial policy might finally disintegrate. But electing a Black President, a political moderate with big-tent views and even bigger smile, couldn’t reverse the trend. As Charlottesville proved, the vile colonizers simply moved underground, awaiting their chance. The persistence of abolition in Lawrence, and of racism in the Trump administration, proves boldly: problems don’t go away because head operators change.

They simply take new form. And the fight, physical and policy alike, must adjust appropriately.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

American Flags and the History of Violence

The offending banner, in its natural environment

So as we sat down to eat at a perfectly pleasant restaurant with an Early American decor theme, I happened to glance to my left and see a banner. Not really a flag, the proportions were all wrong; fly it in the wind, on a battlefield where the infantry needs to know which colors to rally around, and it would hang limply. The only correct word for this red, white, and blue confection is “banner.”

It had a ring of thirteen stars on a blue union, and stripes in red and blue. It also had a fourteenth star inside the ring. And I thought it looked uncomfortably familiar. Like any good resident of the Third Millennium, I reached for my smartphone, because what’s the point of carrying a massively powerful networked computer in your pocket if you can’t occasionally use it to Google things? So I did, and I immediately found what I feared:

This banner sure looked like the Confederate national flag.

We’re accustomed to associating the Confederate States of America with the “Stars and Bars,” a blue St. Andrew’s Cross with white stars on a solid red field. But this wasn’t the national flag of the Confederacy, it was the battle flag of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. That flag gained prominence during the Civil Rights Movement, as a militant white pushback against the idea that black Americans deserve equal standing. But that’s a later addition to the Confederate myth, and one that serves modern rather than historical purposes.

The Confederate national flag had thirteen stars in a ring on the blue union, and three stripes: two red and one white. The banner flying at my left had five stripes, three red and two white, besides the puzzling fourteenth star. I told Sarah that I thought we’d spotted a Confederate flag, just three days after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. As people sympathetic with civil rights and racial equality, I wondered aloud whether we could eat here.

So naturally Sarah went to speak with the manager. She needed to know whether she was about to give her money to a business that openly advertised sympathies with a treasonous pseudo-nation that fought against the United States to protect slavery. But while she did that, I kept probing, and discovered I’d possibly made a terrible mistake. This wasn’t a Confederate flag, it was a Betsy Ross flag.

The Betsy Ross flag (above) and the Confederate national flag (below)

Both flags have thirteen white stars, a blue union, and red and white stripes. At a brief glance, the only distinguishing characteristic between the two flags is the number of stripes. This probably represents a Confederate attempt to usurp American mythology. As historian Nancy Isenberg writes, Confederates and Northerners sniped incessantly about which represented the real American heritage, calling each other Crackers and Mudsills, respectively.

With five stripes, and the inexplicable fourteenth star, the offending banner clearly was neither a Betsy Ross flag nor a Confederate flag. And when Sarah returned with the manager, who explained the banner was hanging around as part of her store’s post-July 4th decorations, I realized there were other pieces of patriotic kitsch hanging around. I’d wandered into a Hall of Americana for brunch without realizing it.

Sarah and I apologized profusely to the manager. Clearly, in light of recent events, we’d made a significant mistake. Yet had we? Images of America’s slaveholding past linger everywhere. If you count colonial times, and historians do, we were slaveholding longer than we’ve been free. Movies like Gone With the Wind, which openly extols slaveholding society, are considered classics. And many of our Founding Fathers were slaveholders.

President Trump, in the video linked above, makes an equivalency between Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. This isn’t unfair, since all defended and profited from slavery (though Lee never owned slaves himself). But the equivalency is false. Jackson and Lee fought for a nation that existed to preserve and extend slavery. Washington and Jefferson set the process of liberation in motion… though failed at enacting it themselves.

We ate our French toast in relative peace, surrounded by a comfortingly multiracial dining room that clearly didn’t share our offense at the possibly Confederate banner. We probably hadn’t stumbled into a den of covert racism. Yet I still couldn’t wash the bad aftertaste from my mouth. American society, for all its virtues, still fails to redress its explicitly racist past. People are still dying for the cause. If I’m not willing to speak up, what am I?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Other Boy Who Could Fly

John Leonard Pielmeier, Hook's Tale: Being the Account of an Unjustly Villainized Pirate Written By Himself

First, his name isn’t Hook. James Cook, great-grandson of the explorer James Cook, is press-ganged into the Queen’s Navy, aged 14, ending his London childhood and Eton education forever. But rumors of treasure lead to mutiny, and Cook finds himself sailing under the Black Flag. Soon his ship crosses the line into a mysterious land where nobody, not even little boys dressed in tattered leaves, ever grows up.

American author John Leonard Pielmeier is probably best-known for his play, and later film adaptation, Agnes of God. Since that classic, he’s become an in-demand screenwriter, especially for adaptations of heavy, difficult literature. But he admits, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan first awakened his interest in reading, and in his first novel, he returns to Neverland, retelling the story from the forsaken antihero’s perspective.

Cook finds himself orphaned, expelled, and pressed in quick succession. A comforting life of middle-class London innocence surrenders to harsh sailors’ compromises. Under his captain’s Puritanical supervision, Cook toughens his skin, practices his Latin, and conquers his ignorance. Soon he’s a real sailor. Then the mutiny forces him to choose between honesty and survival. And, on a distant Neverland shore, he finds a castaway who remembers Cook’s long-lost father.

If Peter Pan is the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, James Cook is the Boy Who Has Adulthood Thrust Upon Him Violently. There’s a Luke Skywalker quality to Cook’s transition, but he often learns the wrong lessons. He abandons his post to discover more about his father. He nurses petty grudges and pursues vengeance so far, he inadvertently injures himself. He admits lying to achieve his ends—then demands we trust him, not Barrie, to tell the real story.

John Leonard Pielmeier
Peter Pan, meanwhile, proves himself capricious, controlling, and worse. Marooned by his shipmates, Cook meets Peter, and both are overjoyed to finally make friends their own age. But Cook doesn’t want to stay fourteen forever. He faces a monster so terrible, even Peter can’t stomach it, and in so doing, wins Tiger Lily’s heart. Peter, jealous that his friend doesn’t live in the eternal present, murders her. Or so Cook says.

Pielmeier strips Barrie’s Edwardian sensationalism. Cook repeatedly insists he’s no pirate, but an orphan caught in something beyond his control. He’s certainly not Blackbeard’s bo'sun. The Piccaninnies aren’t a stereotyped Plains Indian tribe, they’re a proud Polynesian nation, the Pa-Ku-U-Na-Ini. And Neverland isn’t a haven of eternal innocent irresponsibility, it’s a land of Lotus-Eaters where all time gets compressed into Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.

Repeatedly, Cook insists he’s no villain. Yet he’s exactly that, if accidentally: everywhere he goes, his presence disrupts the balance. Gentleman Starkey initiates the mutiny because he finds Cook’s treasure map. Peter and the Pa-Ku-U-Na-Ini live in peaceful rapport until Cook interrupts their religious ceremony, breaks Tiger Lily’s prior engagement, and leaves Peter friendless. He even accidentally hastens the Wendy Darling’s kidnapping.

Critics have seen, in Barrie’s Peter Pan, an enactment of the Oedipal conflict, as Peter battles the piratical father-figure and must choose between three ideals of womanhood. I see, in Pielmeier’s Cook, a dark mirror of Campbell’s Heroic Journey metaphor. Pielmeier hits every marker: the Call to Adventure, the Threshold, the Road of Trials, the Temptress, even the Return. But unlike Campbell’s hero, at every opportunity, Cook makes the wrong choice.

Cook insists he’s innocent. But everywhere he goes, he leaves a trail of broken souls and dead bodies. He insists upon his own honesty, and gives a detailed accounting of his actions, while he admits lying to achieve selfish ends. Though book-smart and crafty, he lacks wisdom, perhaps because his lifetime’s experiences don’t match his bodily appearance. Thus, instead of achieving enlightenment, he becomes driven by vengeance and rage.

Maria Tatar writes, of Barrie’s original play and novel, that the dominant theme is futility. The Lost Boys, Piccaninnies, and pirates pursue one another in a permanent clockwise pattern around the island, perpetually enacting time, though they never age. Pielmeier disrupts that: Cook enters a magic archipelago where time means nothing, but instead he brings change. He brings mortality into a land without age. But he never understands this.

Pielmeier isn’t the first author to rewrite Hook’s backstory. Besides Barrie himself, recent entries have included J.V. Hart, Christina Henry, and Dave Barry. However, I particularly like Pielmeier’s psychological depth and emotional complexity. Pielmeier’s Cook is a master schemer, but also a master of self-deception. He successfully complicates Barrie’s original story, but only at great cost to himself, which he clearly hasn’t begun to understand.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Goddess's Guide to Folk Rock Stardom

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part Seven
Ani DiFranco, Living In Clip


Ani DiFranco gained attention for her DIY music ethos in the 1990s, as probably the most successful musician to found her own label and release her own albums. That’s how I first encountered her. In the final fifteen years when record sales still mattered, her ability to control her own sound, marketing, and image control made her legendary. Frequently, this forward-thinking creative control overshadowed how profound her music actually was.

This recording showcases DiFranco’s uncompromising musicianship. Recorded over the previous two years, these songs display a performer notorious for her assertion that she lived to play before a live audience. Her ability to respond to audience energy, and the audience’s willingness to answer her cues, show a reciprocal relationship between both sides of the divide. Her intensely autobiographical lyrics clearly touch listeners through their immediate intimacy.

Though famous for her entrepreneurial ethic, DiFranco’s music was equally ambitious, a mix of acoustic austerity with indie rock drive. Though she never got much radio play, lacking connections to distribute payola, occasional songs like “32 Flavors” or “Untouchable Face” got airplay from radio programmers rebelling against the then-nascent ClearChannel monopolism. Her independence apparently rubbed off on gung-ho individualists, college students, and other freethinkers.

She certainly conveys this independence in her live recordings. Though self-identified as a folksinger (and in frequent rotation of venues like FolkAlley.com), her style combines folk introspection with punk clarity. She drives her own sound with just her voice and guitar, backed mostly by a rhythm section. She doesn’t invest in ornamentation or ensemble complexity—with exceptions, as she does front the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on two tracks.

Ani DiFranco
But mostly, she carries her own weight onstage. She plays with a modified clawhammer strum, the same basic style used by Bob Dylan and John Lennon. (In interviews around this time, she described teaching herself guitar with a Beatles songbook.) Her evident love of playing comes across when she doesn’t stop strumming during stage banter. And banter she does: she uses a Lenny Bruce-style conversational rapport to establish, and respond to, her audience’s desires.

Despite her acoustic folk roots, DiFranco shows herself comfortable with innovation. Tracks like “Not So Soft” or “The Slant” utilize a hip-hop recitative style which punctuates her lyrical urgency. On other tracks, like “Sorry I Am” or “Fire Door,” she allows her sound operator to loop her vocals, permitting her to harmonize with herself, in a style other acoustic artists wouldn’t embrace for a decade after this album’s release.

DiFranco has often been the most vocal and strenuous critic of her own studio recordings, describing them as “sterile” or worse, despite serving as her own producer and arranger. This is often unfair, as anyone who’s heard albums like 1996’s Dilate can attest; she’s a masterful stylist who uses studio effects without overusing them. However, even her best studio recordings do have a certain lack of immediacy about them.

Not so this recording. Her mostly acoustic performances, with session drummer Andy Stochansky and bassist Sara Lee, showcase her power as a live performer. In an essay reprinted in the Utne Reader in 2002, DiFranco admitted she mostly made albums to publicize her live tours, largely the opposite of the then-accepted music business standard. She invested studio time to justify her passion for playing before a live audience.

Despite her personal lyrics, her writing is often intensely political too. DiFranco, an admitted pansexual agnostic, adopted opinions too liberal even for most mainline progressives back then, embracing her sexual inclusivity on songs like “Adam and Eve,” and confessing gender-based personal traumas with “Letter to a John” and “Tiptoe.” She was too aggressive even for most feminists: at her 1990s peak, she declined Lilith Fair, though she could’ve headlined, calling it too timid.


This landmark album pushed DiFranco into mainstream consciousness, drawing listeners’ attention to her muscular, unapologetic live performances. She dared audiences to join her introspective journey, and that largely self-selecting audience followed. Her mainstream acceptance followed, including larger venues and ten Grammy nominations in ten years. Though never a superstar, this album ushered in DiFranco’s moment of greatest artistic and commercial triumph.

DiFranco’s particular stretch of the 1990s produced several iconic women singer-songwriters, from fresh-faced ingenues like Fiona Apple to seasoned geniuses like Tori Amos. Like them, DiFranco saw her commercial star marginalized by the artistically anodyne stylings of the middle 2000s, and she’s returned to headlining the specialized circuit she once loved. She’s probably better for it. These pre-fame recordings display an artist most comfortable with intimacy and vision.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Dollar Store Jesus

Mitch Kruse with D.J. Williams, Street Smarts From Proverbs: How to Navigate Through Conflict to Community

The other day I reviewed a business book that had an underlying moral message. This time, it goes the other way: I have a Christian book that’s essentially an encomium to capitalism. And I have the same basic responses to both: they’re okay, provided you don’t push either to their logical extremes. Tempered with moderation and accountability, either could be uplifting and game-changing; unmoored from community, either could lead to self-sanctification and arrogance.

Reverend Mitch Kruse paid for his seminary education through proceeds from selling his Internet start-up to eBay. This duality, the transition from capitalist self-marketing to Christian humility, inflects this, his second book. He has a biblically solid exegesis, based on a fairly consistent conservative evangelical read of Proverbs and, to a lesser degree, other Scripture. But the emphasis is very first person singular. It’s about I, me, my relationship with God… which isn’t what Proverbs is about.

Kruse believes monthly rereadings of Proverbs will instruct open students in judgement, discretion, and restraint. This, for Kruse, makes a working definition of “wisdom,” a form of thinking in which faithful believers sublimate their human reason to God’s will. Because Proverbs has thirty-one chapters, reading one per day will increase opportunities for learning and self-correction. Through repetition, devoted readers will acquire the habits of right thinking and self-control which Proverbs makes available to open minds.

Pursuing this goal, Kruse is a master maker of lists and other mnemonic devices. The largest part of this book delves into what Kruse calls the Twelve Words, important themes which recur in Proverbs and define its overarching goal, Wisdom. These include Righteousness, Justice, Discipline, and Learning— words which mean something different in Biblical contexts than in conversational English. Kruse defines these terms using a mix of scholarship and anecdote, in the classic sermonist style.

Mitch Kruse
My problem isn’t Kruse’s writing. He hews to a familiar homiletic style which I assume Christian writers must learn in seminary, because it recurs regularly. I might wish Kruse broke from a mold I find boring in Christian pop nonfiction, because I’ve seen it so often that my eyes skim the page, but that’s my personal problem. Rather, his choice of Proverbs, probably the most first-person-singular book of the Bible, leaves me scratching my head.

Proverbs is part of what Hebrew scholars call Wisdom Literature, four books (seven in the Septuagint, called the Catholic Apocrypha) that differ from other Biblical books. Neither history, like the Torah, nor exhortations of the people, like the Prophets, Wisdom Literature mostly involves gnomic poems and sayings restraint, humility, and godliness. Unlike most Hebrew Scripture, Proverbs isn’t intended for the whole people; it’s specifically for kings or (like the case of Ecclesiastes) sons of kings.

That’s why mainline liturgical churches often avoid Proverbs in pulpit ministry. We can’t agree on how it applies to most believers today. We consider it inspired, and like all scripture, useful for instruction. But to call it controversial is underselling the situation. Kruse often has to perform theological gymnastics to make Proverbs yield the communitarian thesis he promises in his title, an approach that, I’ve noticed, doesn’t much include direct citations from Scripture, including Proverbs.

Thus we’re faced with a Christian book that seldom cites the principal Christian source, a communitarian book about hierarchies, a book about Hebrew Scripture that largely eschews the Hebrew prophetic tradition. Kruse trades primarily in contradictions, which I think even he doesn’t always see. His most recurring theme holds that Christians need to subjugate their will and intellect to God’s, yet h almost entirely emphasizes individual salvation, not what God would have us actually do.

My biggest problem turns on Kruse’s distribution of rewards. His anecdotes generally follow a reliable pattern: a person Kruse knows, or knows about, ventures into willfulness and self-seeking, which ends badly. (He particularly dreads substance abuse.) That person rediscovers God’s purpose, surrenders to divine will, and gets restored. This often ends with some earthly reward: a university degree and a family, lucrative speaking gigs, media stardom. Heavenly salvation, in Kruse’s theology, generally brings earthly rewards.

Kruse never says anything I find altogether wrong. He often shares meaningful, uplifting, theologically sound precepts. But with his emphasis on individual salvation and the journey from poverty to riches, literal or metaphorical, he’s essentially sharing a Christianized Horatio Alger story. Though I often like Kruse’s message, I cannot escape the reality that, throughout, he never stops thinking like a businessman. Christianity is, for Kruse, a transaction, where the faithful hope to make a profit.