Django and the White Fascination With Black Culture

Even before the emancipation proclamation there was white guilt over slavery. The so-called ‘cakewalk’ was a dance which, by varying accounts, was a parody by slaves of white people dancing or, in another incarnation, a dance by whites attempting to imitate the dancing among their slaves. They were attracted to the dancing styles of their slaves.

Despite the ostensible separation of whites and blacks there has been a persistent fascination with black culture by white people. Take the example of jazz. Jazz is an authentic American art form which has its roots in black culture, in ragtime, blues, worksongs and gospel. From the beginning it was something that fascinated white people who then imitated it, attempted to co-opt it, make it their own. Admittedly many of these imitations were, like the cakewalk, pretty bad. But some were serious attempts at emulation.

From the very beginnings of jazz there have been white people who were attracted to it, recognized it as an art form. Some simply attempted to profit from it, to take the profit away from black people as they were accustomed. But it is the people who recognized it as an art form and promoted it that I want to focus upon here.

Witness the proliferation of ‘Dixieland’ jazz with white players. Woody Allen fronts such an ensemble and the music is featured in some of his films. He is a filmmaker who manages to shoot in New York and present a tableau free of people of color yet he pays homage to the New Orleans style with his band.

People well-versed in jazz history can name quite a few white artists who contributed most admirably to the development of jazz: George Shearing, Benny Goodman, the Dorsey brothers, etc. to name but a few. Of course it is also worth noting that the major innovations in jazz seem to have been done by black people: Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, etc.

It is clear that white people have embraced jazz as a viable art form one that inspired their own creativity. Take, for example, George Gershwin. His feel for rhythm and melody produced some of the greatest songs of the twentieth century. His opera, ‘Porgy and Bess’ has rightfully been praised as a masterpiece. Gershwin is one of the more visible artists whose work was heavily informed and inspired by jazz, by black culture.

As mentioned before there were attempts at maintaining the separation of whites and blacks but white audiences still filled the ‘Cotton Club’ and similar venues to see the genius of the masters of the form. As the twentieth century progressed, of course, the ability to maintain the separation became progressively more difficult. White people couldn’t stay away.

Rock and roll with artists like Sam Cooke, Little Richard and so many wonderful Doo-Wop groups took hold of the youth of the 50s and 60s in spite of the attempts of parents and clergy efforts to exorcise the “demon” that possessed their children. Some of the (unintentionally) funniest efforts to take control of this music include covers of ‘Tutti Frutti’ by Pat Boone and similar pale imitations of the real thing by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley. But none of these imitations succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of the white kids.

I present these musings as prologue to this essay because I wish to suggest that there is significant precedent on which to base an assertion. I believe that the most loving and successful art by white people in forms that originated in black culture are actually homage to those forms and are, in the sense of psychohistory, an attempt by white people to come to terms with white guilt and to exorcise the demons of the practice of slavery.

The photo parody at the head of this essay is not intended to disparage either the book or the film ‘The Help’ except to say that it is important to note that the perspective of both the book and the film is that of white people. This does not necessarily detract from the value of them but it does give a clue as to why black people are less enamored of the work. It is not black people’s’ experience of the events. It is a white person’s perspective in an attempt to come to terms with those events.

So we come now to the Quentin Tarantino movie, ‘Django’. In an interview on NPR I heard Tarantino discussing the genesis of this film and reflecting on his youth and upbringing. He had a great deal of contact with black culture and he stated at one point, “…black culture is my culture.” Some will see that as an overstatement but I took it as a sincere One. Indeed he has absorbed a great deal of black culture and credits that with much of his success today.

Back to Django. I saw this film not knowing what to expect. I had stopped following Tarantino’s work pretty much since ‘Kill Bill’. What I saw was a story of a freed slave coming to conquer the white slave owners and reclaim his bride at first with the assistance of white people but then alone. I saw serious attempts to honestly depict some of the actual cruelty of slavery and the sadistic actions of white slave owners. I did not see racism in the core of the film. I saw Tarantino’s fascination with and genuine affection for black culture.

The character of Django is, i believe, that of a comic book superhero with essentially superhuman powers (and luck) who comes to right the wrongs done to him and, potentially, to his people. Just as Spider Man, Superman, Batman, etc.(and later Wonder Woman and the female superheros) conquer crime, Nazis, etc. as the tenor of the times require Django is a superhero who comes to assuage white guilt and perhaps offer acknowledgement and even apology for the sins of 400 years of black slavery from which whites profited. But even though he is a black man onscreen saving black people he is a white superhero ultimately solving white people’s problems.

Has Django or ‘The Help’ solved the problem of racism? Of course not. That would be a very racist statement. These films and other art forms produced by white people and informed by black culture are, I believe, a step in the long process of coming to terms with what my ancestors have done and an attempt to offer some small reparation for an insult that was repeated by many generations. I eagerly await more films by black directors and writers who will present a perspective more satisfying to black audiences (and instructive to white audiences).

I don’t know how many more generations will repeat the sins of racism (would that this were the last) but I take some comfort in the fact that there are some white people willing to make an effort, who attempt to be anti-racist. I can’t end racism by myself but I am glad to have Django to lend me a hand.

Posted in Art, Debates, media, movies, Politics, racism, white people | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fixing Gun Violence

President Obama has signed some twenty-three executive orders about gun regulation. Of course the heavily racist “fears” about him and his administration were running on high shortly after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Just like when you were a kid and did something you knew was wrong the NRA and its fanatical adherents were already anticipating that they were about to be taken out to the wood shed for a beating. Preemptive strikes were made in statements which pretty much all said, “Obama is gonna take our guns” with implied or, no doubt in some cases, explicit racial slurs attached.

The president has responded most admirably I think to deal with this awful chapter of history. He seemed to really feel the tears that welled up as he made his statements to the country after the attack. And he lent his warm and dignified presence mourning beside the families who lost their children and other loved ones that day.

His executive orders and his statements on gun regulation issues are exactly what we should expect of our chief executive. After such an incident an appropriate legislative response is required. We know Congress has been clearly incapable of passing much more than salary increases for themselves or further curtailing our right to privacy.

And, as with everything that this president has attempted, his gun regulation efforts are meeting with profound and paranoid resistance. Not only are we going to have a our gun “rights” restricted but it will be done by a black man. That rattles the cages of those right wingers something fierce.

Who is responsible for gun safety and regulations? Well nominally it would be the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (did they recently append “explosives” as a part of their title?). So that would be the federal government.

But those who cry so loudly for FEMA assistance when natural disaster strikes cling at times like these to libertarian ideals of self-reliance with the familiar catch phrases like “guns don’t kill people….etc.” All these people want their guns and have for years allowed for the gaping loopholes in gun shows that circumvent the existing laws on the books regulating gun ownership.

Keep in mind that these same people had no argument whatsoever with stricter gun regulation after they saw the armed black militias of the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam. It is pretty clear that these groups, despite misdirecting rhetoric, want only white people or at least the privileged class to own guns. The NRA basically supported the Gun Control Act of 1968 which arguably made it easier to take guns away from radical organizations.

And then we have the NRA. The National Rifle Association, established in 1871 (about the same time as the Ku Klux Klan) ostensibly to improve marksmanship which was so shabby during the Civil War. They are a “non-profit” organization which, since about 1977 has shifted its focus from marksmanship to “protecting the second amendment”. (For the record the text of said amendment is: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”.) At least the part about owning guns. They never seem to talk about that lead phrase about the “well-regulated militia”.

In 2008 a Supreme Court case (District of Columbia v. Heller) de-emphasized the ‘militia’ clause and, for the first time, defined the “right to bear arms” specifically as an individual right. That is the right to bear arms is interpreted as not dependent on membership in a militia but rather a right unto itself. Notably this decision was handed down after the Virginia Tech Massacre of 2007 in which 32 people were killed by a lone gunman.

As horrified as people initially are after mass killings the support for gun regulation remains pretty limited with a tremendous force on the pro-gun side ready to challenge any attempt to restrict gun ownership. If you’re like me this all seems terribly illogical. And even when 20 elementary school children were killed in December, 2012 the debate raged on. Even more illogical have been the suggestion that the solution is more guns, armed guards, arming teachers, etc. I would have thought that the murder of truly innocent children would have tipped the scales in the other direction. Silly me.

Newtown boasts a census of just over 25,000 people of whom a little more than 95% are white. It is located in Fairfield County which has voted more than 50% Democratic since 2000. But gun ownership has been very much favored here. Perhaps that will change? I don’t think so.

So let’s get back to the issue of who is responsible. Nominally the ATF, the federal government is responsible for the control of firearms. However the NRA has been very high-profile and their lobbyists have spent a great deal of money ($10 million in 2008 alone)to convince law makers to reject attempts at gun regulation.

Now I think that this amount of influence should carry with it some responsibility. And, for that matter, I question the non-profit status of an organization which has that kind of money and political influence. But the NRA stands virtually unchallenged in this respect. They say that they do training and put together safety protocols, etc., etc. But the fact remains that the availability of the weapons used in the Newtown killings and just about any other mass murder you can name is arrogantly supported by this organization.

The challenges to the NRA have been largely done through arguing the pro-regulation side of cases. The NRA is challenged in debate rhetoric but I am aware of no legal action specifically against the NRA. Perhaps it is time for those directly affected by gun violence to bring suit against the NRA for their very significant role in keeping guns available and blocking regulations efforts. They support the rights of individuals but they appear to be doing nothing for society as a whole.

Perhaps an enterprising attorney or law firm would be willing to take on a suit against the NRA and gun manufacturers and sellers for their role in the deaths and injuries that have resulted from gun violence. Imagine the NRA having to spend $10 million on mental health care or school security. Or imagine the taxes we could collect if they were no longer allowed to be classified as non-profit. That would be nice. But I think that anyone who tries to bring such an action would probably get shot.

Posted in accountability, crime, cults, Debates, Democrats, Gun regulation, Guns, mass murder, media, News Cycle, Newtown, Politics, Republicans, second amendment, white people | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Cliff Equality

>liberty hides

The term “fiscal cliff” is wearing away at my last nerve. This buzzword is supposed to mean something scary I guess. But who is it that needs to be afraid of the cliff. Not Congress. Not the president. So who does that leave? Yes, us, the American people. And it is for this reason that I propose the adoption of a new kind of cliff, one which is more equal.

Here in California we had a problem getting our legislature to pass a budget. But after a cleverly designed “cliff” the problem seems to have been resolved. The cliff was a resolution in which the legislature agreed that they would not be paid unless they successfully passed a budget. And though they approached the cliff by waiting to the last minute to pass that budget they chose to set aside their differences in favor of getting paid. And a budget was passed.

The problem with the federal fiscal cliff is that the ones who wind up going over the cliff first are (as usual) those who can least afford it. The working class will see significant taxes come out of their paychecks come January. Those who are just barely making ends meet will find that they no longer can be met. But the President and Congress risk little more than not getting elected when their term is up. And by that time they can probably rely on Americans’ short memory to assure that they can again bamboozle them into electing them again. (I know, I know the president can’t be elected again but bear with me for the sake of argument.)

In an earlier blog post I proposed a solution to the health care crisis: Put Congress on Blue Cross. And I am suggesting something similar for such partisan battles as the fiscal cliff. The point here is for our legislators to actually feel our pain, to share in the loss of income or the hassles of dealing with conventional insurance plans.

I think that all three branches of government should simply not be paid until they solve the budget crisis. Never mind the blame game. It won’t matter at whom they can successfully point their fingers because they, the lawmakers, will not be paid until they do thier jobs. the ones we elected them to do. We did it in California so there is a precedent.

I realize that this will not help the current crisis but for the future I think that we need to hold our employees accountable the way our employers hold us accountable. No work, no pay. Simple as that.

The next time we have such a partisan crisis we need to be able to invoke a statute which will provide us with more of a guarantee that our civil servants serve us by doing the jobs for which they were hired. Never mind filibuster reforms, they’ll stop talking and start acting if their wallets are impacted, I guarantee you.

Another way of putting it, using another time worn phrase these days would be to say we are putting them…ahem…”under the gun”.

Posted in accountability, apocalypse, budget crisis, Debates, Democrats, healthcare, Humor, media, News Cycle, Politics, Republicans | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Apocalypse Tomorrow


Well here we are, finally. The preponderance of scholarly evidence suggests that December 21, 2012 is the date at which the Mayan calendar ends. So, as usual, there are a number of apocalypse-loving folks who have found it another in a historically long line of reasons to declare the end of the world.

What I fail to understand is why this causes such terror. If indeed the world is ending then there is presumably nothing we can do about it. So why worry? It’s too late to build a bunker or a spaceship. I think it’s probably too late to acquire the amount of forgiveness necessary to be admitted to heaven or to be floated up in the rapture.

I work nights so I will be very awake at midnight (PST) so I will post something witty if the world ends then. And I expect to arrive home at about 8AM. Perhaps I shall stay awake until noon just for sport. But that Mayan calendar apparently failed to tell us with which time zone it correlates. In fact I just saw a post on Facebook from New Zealand where it is already December 21st and they claim that the world has not ended.

Unfortunately our times are such that perhaps the world deserves nothing more than an end. An end to wars, an end to genocide, an end to various forms of cruelty including poverty of mind and body. An end to selfish materialism, an end to gun violence, an end to suffering and sadness of every kind.

So if the world does end tomorrow I think it would be simply appropriate. And I am prepared in my mind to accept whatever happens. I will simply go on my routine existence still hoping and working for better times ahead if the world does not end.

I have no time or room for major fears in my life. So if tomorrow is that often predicted apocalypse for real then I would rather meet it with welcome than with fear. Here’s hoping for a better tomorrow if there is a tomorrow. I would welcome that as well.

Posted in 2012, apocalypse, astrology, cults, Debates, eschatology, esoterica, mass murder, Mayan calendar, Mayan prophecy, media, News Cycle, prophecy, Religion, Revelation, the end | Leave a comment

Violence is Normal


It is virtually impossible to avoid violence these days. I can’t turn on the television, the radio or browse internet social media or, for that matter, read my e-mail without encountering violence. It occurs at varying distances from me. Occasionally, as when I participated in the May Day demonstrations in Oakland, it occurred right before my eyes.

I don’t like violence. I am afraid of violence. I think most people are. But I, like most people, have learned that it is now a normal part of every day life. The experience that was once only common in war zones and the “inner city”, a war zone of sorts. But now it is my constant, if unwanted companion.

And though I am still privileged to have a job and be able to afford to live in a relatively safe place I know that violence surrounds me. Whether it was the shootings at Oikos University (a small Christian college whose existence was unknown to me until this event) a few miles from me this past April or the Newtown Elementary School shooting of this past week or the massive murders in the Syrian civil war there is no avoiding violence. It is almost an everyday fact of life.

I try to imagine what it must be like to have violence at my doorstep every day. It is the norm for thousands of people in the world. And I guess that I am still at least not in that situation. But I have to wonder what violence as a normal daily occurrence must do to a person. I know it can’t be good.

The Washington Post which recounts 13 such events in the past year. And those that read international stories know that 13 is a small number comparatively.

American news media presents these stories in what has become a rather studied and stereotypical fashion. The “tragedy” is recounted, the names and ages of the victims are reported as soon as they are known, some politician makes reverent comments ostensibly to provide comfort. And then they’re off with wild speculation based more on emotion and generally showing a lack of understanding of the bigger picture. One commentator actually suggested that it would be a good idea to have someone in the school who is armed and prepared for the next such onslaught. Some immediately assumed that the shooter had to be mentally ill and diagnosed him retroactively as autistic or “Asperger’s”. But the mentally ill, at least the ones with whom I deal as a psychiatric nurse, are no more or less violent than those who are not receiving care. And then there is the very American “gun debate”. The politics of fear keep people voting in favor of gun laws and “the second amendment” (whose very wording speaks of a “well-regulated militia”). And finally the coverage of the funerals and interviews with grieving families and neighbors.

But you better grieve quickly because you never know when the next one will happen. Keep those emergency rooms supplied and the caskets ready on short order because it is no longer an issue of “if” this will happen but “when”. And that is the new norm with which we live. Perhaps it will occur in a workplace, perhaps it will occur in a school, maybe a shopping mall or other public place but we know it will happen again.

We have essentially accepted the norms of war and violence as basically a daily experience. And even as these experiences move ever closer to the privileged (mostly white and mostly middle class) we are now, apparently, unable to stop the march of violence. After years of declaring war on countries, on drugs, on cancer, etc. we have found that we are at war with ourselves.

After the second world war the name of a cabinet position changed from Secretary of War to Secretary of Defense. I want to know when we can change it to Secretary of Peace. Boy is that a naive and idealistic concept, eh? But despite Shakespeare’s suggestion that names don’t matter I believe that sometimes they reflect meaning and that a cabinet position whose job is to handle war is going to be different that one whose job it is to handle defense and still more different if their job is to handle peace.

I think that we have successfully cultivated a global culture of violence, that we have essentially stopped realistically seeking peaceful alternatives. And it isn’t because of violent video games or because we don’t put God in the schools (God was presumably in Oikos University but people still died) or because the shooters are mentally ill or even because guns are legal (the problem here is that there is no enforced regulation). It is because we have lost sight of any other alternative. The solution to violence is more violence just as the solution to all crimes is more punishment. We don’t really expect change but we do revel in punishment and blame even as we treat each new incident as “just a blip”, an aberration.

Our culture of violence has strong roots in inequality. We, the privileged, can be concerned about the violence in the inner city or in Syria or wherever. But we as a voting public have done practically nothing perhaps because it wasn’t happening to “us”. Well now it is happening to “us”, the mostly white, middle class, mindlessly flag waving voting public who historically have voted against equality and have striven to maintain a fairy tale 1950s version of America. And as the violence approaches ever closer to our doorsteps we continue to do nothing different than we did before: rationalized, blame, punish and move on until the next incident. And if you think it’s not rooted in inequality then do what a friend of mine suggested: get a bunch of Muslim men dressed in full stereotypic Taliban-like regalia and a bunch of black men in their best approximation of the stereotype “gangsta” attire and take them to one of those gun shows. I suspect that someone will take serious notice.

I don’t expect any real changes in the equality area either. Nor am I so naive as to think this is the only issue. We have for so long-lived with inequality that it is a norm as well. Many aspects of our society are frozen in the cycle of “we do it that way because we’ve always done it that way”. We are afraid of change. We grasp on to the illusion that if we just continue to do things as we have been doing we can get back to the mythical “golden age” regardless if it is golden for all.

Posted in anthropology, crime, Debates, healthcare, mass murder, media, News Cycle, Newtown, Occupy Movement, Politics, racism, Religion, white people | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Men Will Be Men

In the course of the oh so drawn out coverage of General Petraeus’ affair with his biographer various commentators recently have used the phrase “men will be men” and spoke of the difficulty men have when they don’t have access to “adequate” sexual release. Even the female reporters seem all too comfortable with this conventional argument.

Reference was made on NPR’s ‘Forum’ show today to “comfort women” who were in fact forced sexual slaves conscripted to service Japanese soldiers (we don’t even speak of how our military achieved this). This is patently offensive. Conflating a sexual affair with sexual slavery is problematic to say the least. And reviving the 1950s norm of laughing off men’s sexual exploits as endemic to their gender is regressive and equally offensive to both men and women.

In the 1950s take on this issue the implicit assumption was that men need regular sexual release and that without it they cannot be expected to function fully as men. Of course sexual release in our prudish society cannot include masturbation, pornography, etc. due to the ‘immoral’ content of these methods. And using these immoral methods somehow make them less than men. So the only option is to have women available (our current liberal attitude would require that men be made available as well) to provide the sexual services “required” (I think the word should be “requested”) by our hard-working men (no pun intended).

If we are aware of this “need” why have we not provided for it? With the best funded and most advanced military in the world how could we have missed this apparently essential factor? Where are the medical and security cleared prostitutes providing this maintenance? How can we put our military might and national security be put at risk by our failure to provide this needed service?

Well I think that there are various factors at play here. One is the celebrity factor, one that still successfully protects sexual perpetrators such as the high-profile Jimmy Savile in Britain and our own Coach Sandusky. Another factor is economic and procedural utility. When perpetrators are needed as generals, soldiers, coaches, DJs, CEOs, etc. they get a pass by having their behavior overlooked or covered up. And last is inertia. Behavior that has gone on and continues to go on is automatically attributed to be necessary and unchangeable so no effort is made to do so.

What of the men and women who despite their lack of access to adequate sexual contact do not have affairs or victimize children or co-workers but still do their jobs well? Are we to believe that everyone behaves the same way? I don’t think so. But clearly people who maintain appropriate boundaries and adhere to vows and moral codes are apparently of little interest to society as a whole.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to demonize everyone who has had an affair or a failure of their moral ideal. It’s not nice but it’s also not necessarily the kiss of death to one’s moral worth unless, of course you have committed a crime in the process. Human beings have weaknesses but it is important that we don’t so readily reinforce them. And I know many people (men and women) who are able to manage their sexuality and do their jobs without compromising their values or promises. I just think it’s time we revisit this little truism and reinforce behavior which meets our moral ideals.

Posted in anthropology, crime, News Cycle, rape, sexual abuse, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No More Compromise, Demand Respect!

It’s not even 48 hours after the election has been called for Barack Obama and, just like in 2008, there are death threats by whiney rich kids on the internet and “we’re gonna block you unless you do it our way” threats from the Speaker of the House. Nothing has changed. The Republicans continue to use the same tactics having learned nothing. And the public who did not vote for Obama feel as free as ever to make racist comments and murderous threats.

It seems to this writer that the only way to handle this is by the Barack Obama who succeeded so well in the last two debates. The mandate to govern, despite what conservative pundits say, has been granted by the election and is indisputable. The attempts at non-partisan politics will only continue to earn the president slaps in the face.

I think it is time to turn the tables and to go off that “fiscal cliff” which is supposed to strike fear in everyone. I say let’s be prepared to jump off that cliff with the Republicans. Let’s cut defense spending. Let’s let those taxes go up. Let’s stand by our values as tenaciously as the tea partiers stood by theirs.

I certainly don’t want higher taxes but I am really tired of being held hostage by a bunch of racist and murderous thugs who refuse to respect, much less work with, the legally elected chief executive. We have seen Mr. Obama’s fire and we need to see more.

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