Friday, June 8, 2018

American Dreaming

Abbie Hoffman, the face of the 1960's youth activist movement committed suicide in 1989. At that time, American life took a turn towards the "big" - big weddings, big houses, big cars, big money - and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" was a highly rated show. It seemed that the ideals of the 60s were being rejected. And as a person with the perspective and perceptive abilities he had, Hoffman probably felt it - a change in the force. 

Is that what's happening to America's cultural icons today?

Hoffman, like Chris Cornell, Anthony Bourdain, and Kate Spade after him, was said to have suffered from depression amidst a life of notoriety and success. It seems that their grand design to run away from darkness, to create an alternative, to add light where there appears to be none  propels them. What happens when the light fades?

Is this despair the consequence of sustaining a country on a dream? I don't know.

In times of trouble, Mother Mary may have come to Paul McCartney speaking words of wisdom, but Mother Literature comes to me. 

"Gatsby believed in the green light., the orgastic future that year by year receded before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. And one fine morning ---"

What? What happens!!

Let it be hope.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2018


In honor of the first anniversary of the publication of "Jay Gatsby: A Black Man in Whiteface" here is one of my favorite chapters. Enjoy!


There’s a call and response in the literary world. It
goes like this:

Call: “unreliable narrator”

Response: “Nick Carraway”

He’s the prime example of a narrator who does not
tell you everything. He’s a Yale man, an upstanding
Middle- Westerner. While lying may be beneath
him, courteous and secret omission is not.
He lets us know in the second line of the novel that
when someone has not “had the advantages” that
he has had, he has been taught to avoid criticizing
them. And he does just that by laying out Gatsby’s
lies, but never calling them lies. For example, Nick
likely knows that Gatsby is lying about his
hometown because San Francisco is not in the
Middle-West; that the 7 th Infantry was not in the
Argonne; and that Gatsby is not a legitimate
businessman. Nick knows these things, but never
directly says to the reader that Gatsby had lied.

Even more indicative of his penchant for omission
is that Nick also doesn’t tell the other characters.
This pattern of Nick showing us the lie, but not
calling it repeats when it comes to Gatsby’s race.
It seems that Nick is suspicious of Gatsby’s race
from the start. Shortly after his tanned
skin/frequently trimmed hair observation he says: “I
would have accepted without question the
information that Gatsby sprang from the swamps of
Louisiana or the lower east side of New York.”
(TGG 54) Note, not just the swamps. Not just
Louisiana. Not just New York, but the lower eastside. Why?

To this day older black New Orleans residents refer
to the “front of town” and “back of town”. The back
of town is the swampland close to Lake
Pontchartrain that flooded in Hurricane Katrina. In
Fitz’s time, free blacks and Creoles lived in the
back of town/swamp neighborhoods. (Wiki8) There
was so much racial mixture and social fluidity in
these neighborhoods that Creoles developed a
term for the racial passers: “passabone”. (Buck 85) 
If Gatsby is a passabone it is plausible that someone like him had started out from such a place, just as Nick suggests.

Nick suggests that Gatsby could also have come
from the “Five Points” neighborhoods of New York’s
lower east side. Freed black people were originally
segregated there and they stayed there until they
were pushed to Harlem in the 1920s. (Columbia1)
It’s of note that around the time of Gatsby’s birth (c.
1890) other lower east side districts that were close
to the black ones had so many German immigrants
they were called “kleindeutschland” (Columbia2).
There are hints that Gatsby is part German
because the name “Gatz” is mostly considered to
be German (Jew, Obscene 133) and his father
follows the Lutheran religion, popular in Germany.
(Slater 56) It’s easy to imagine a Gatsby of mixed
race springing from here.

Swamps or New York’s lower east side, either way
Gatsby is once again placed amongst black
populations and culture. And if it is both ways (i.e.,
he has a German father and a Creole mother), then
Gatsby is the personification of the northward
creeping negroid streak. (Thus, it makes sense within the novel’s themes that Tom has a hand in
vanquishing him. This is an example of how a black
Gatsby renders this book whole and seamless.)

Let’s re-consider the caveat: don’t criticize people
who “haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.”
We know that Nick largely doesn’t criticize Gatsby.
Based on Nick’s principles, it follows that he must
deem Gatsby to have disadvantages. Since Nick
believes that Gatsby may have come from one of
the well-established locales of free (usually lighter-
skinned) black Americans, it is possible that Nick
believes (or at least wonders) whether Gatsby’s
disadvantages go beyond class to race. But having
concluded that Gatsby is “worth the whole damn
bunch” of the “rotten crowd” (TGG 134), Nick is not
going to tell us. He is not going to let anyone else
tell us either – that’s why he calmly erases the
obscene word on the steps, a word whose
appearance didn’t seem to surprise him. Thus,
following the pattern, Nick has laid Gatsby’s biggest
lie out in front of us, but refuses to call it.

I think in the end Nick was indeed what he said he
was: a “keeper of the secret griefs of wild, unknown

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Meghan Markle?

“I who am the ancestor of Shakespeare, Chaucer and William the Conqueror, I went to London… I was the only Negro there."

Those words come from Adrienne Kennedy's one act play "The Owl Answers." They are spoken by Clara, the daughter of a white American man and a black American woman who is denied and ostracized by the European culture she idolizes. The play explores issues of multi-cultural identity and inclusion - or  more importantly, exclusion.

"If you are my ancestor why are you a Negro, Bastard? What is a Negro doing at the Tower of London, staying at the Queen's House?" Clara's Dead White English Father asks her.

Yes. Just what is black American Meghan Markle doing in Windsor?

Why, going home of course.

Her mother, a black American, likely has at least some roots in Western Africa. Her father's roots though go back to England. He is descended from Captain Christopher Hussey, the great-great-great-grandson of Lord Hussey, who is also one of the English colonists who founded Nantucket in the 1600s. Lord Hussey was beheaded by Henry VIII for treason -  few things can make you more British than that. Furthermore, Markle and Prince Harry may actually be very distant cousins through a shared ancestor: High Sheriff of County Durham Ralph Bowes, born in the late 15th century.

Though the media  have taken to referring to Markle as "bi-racial",  the many, many Americans that have this particular black/white racial makeup are usually referred to as garden variety black Americans or African-Americans. The existence of their European or other heritage is ignored. Unless they look like Markle. With her blush-brown skin,  naturally curly hair, and freckles, attempts to categorize her quickly become like the messy buns she favors. People are confused and feel like a different label is needed for this unusual, yet expected, though some say bastardized, product of England, America and Africa. Just as Clara struggles to get people to recognize and allow her to enjoy her English ancestry and culture, many are trying to figure out what to do with Markle, what she means.

 To some she is an intruder, to others a pretender, and still others an item of exotica entering the palace. To me, she is a black American woman who has traveled back across the pond and seemingly across time to take a place on the royal stage which a version of her may have always had if someone not emigrated to America. For me, she is a powerful (yet delightful and fashionable) symbol of the chickens coming home to roost in the best way  possible. By some karmic force, England, the country that is the poster child for colonialism, slavery and cultural demolition across the world, will now curtsy to its aftermath. Even the fact that she grew up in the Windsor Hills area of Los Angeles only to be married in Windsor Castle in England has magical resonance. This was meant to be. The circle is closed.

So, the clotted cream is bought and the tea selected. The eggs, sausage and toast are ready to go. I will be celebrating under a cozy blanket, watching a black American not only claim a place in history, but her heritage. All of it.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

TV Review - "Barry"

Barry, an assassin, lands in Los Angeles to do his job. In an early scene as he walks in the airport a jet takes off in his foreground.  Because change is coming. And it's coming to everyone on the hit HBO show "Barry", from the assassin to the police detective to the ingenue and the Chechen mobsters. From the very first scenes you feel that you're in the hands of people who know the filmed entertainment world inside and out. For example, in one scene, a group of student actors try to help another student prepare for an audition. Although they genuinely want to help, they can't avoid being competitive as they one up each other with suggestions and a show of their knowledge of film history. It's subtle but there - and shown with love and understanding. Set and beautifully staged in the iconic streets of Los Angeles, this story is about what drives the gangster and the actor in all of us - and it is simply marvelous. Bill Hader is perfectly cast in the title role. Henry Winkler, Paula Newsome and Anthony Carrigan take what could be stock roles as acting teacher, detective, and sidekick and turn them sideways, showing their character's depth and profile.  Sarah Goldberg, Stephen Root and Glenn Fleshler round out the principal cast in stellar fashion. "Barry" is highly recommended if you like your crime sugared with humor, your comedy with a darkened edge and your TV literary.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Book Review - “Educated” by Tara Westover

Ok. So I admit to being a sucker for all things academic, including of course books with school settings. But please drop everything and read the memoir “Educated” by Tara Westover.   Her parents keep her uneducated and frightened of the modern world. She didn’t see a doctor or even an Advil or hear about the Holocaust until attending a college she lied her way into to escape a brutal sibling in a household that was in constant revolt against the government and deep prep for the end of days. 10 years later she graduated from Cambridge with a Ph.D. and managed to keep her faith. Her life is a testament to listening to yourself and shows how education helps you unfold yourself and the world.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Jail Bill Cosby, but Enjoy “I Spy”

With Bill Cosby again we’re confronted with how to regard the contributor  amidst his life. I am choosing to praise  the contribution and not glorify the person who made it. No matter what, the person will have  a flaw and sometimes a very serious one.  This has tainted his legacy, but not ruined it for me. We should stop naming buildings,  etc. after people if we cannot bear to tell their truth and recognize their humanity at the same time. People are not ideas or ideals. They are people.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Who is Heathcliff, really?

Post #1 - Byron, the Beatles and Black Slavery
“Mad, bad and dangerous to know.” That is how Lady Caroline Lamb described the English poet, Lord George Gordon Sixth Baron Byron (b. 1788-1824) whose male characters often reflected his own persona. Thus, the Byronic hero is defined as an antihero of the highest order, typically rebellious, arrogant, anti-social or in exile and darkly, enticingly romantic. This also describes the hero of Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”, Heathcliff. No last name needed. Or given. Which immediately begs the question: who is he?
A group of historians and writers think they know. They think he looks like this man, Robert Wedderburn. The son of a white Briton and an African woman, brought back to England. A man who rebelled when he discovered that he was not to be given the same opportunity, standing and property to which his father and half-brothers were entitled. They think “Wuthering Heights” is the story of an inside outsider whose existence and expectations clash with the social order. If this sounds familiar it’s because it was. Writers tend to respond to what they see and write what they know. Emily Bronte knew Liverpool, England. It was near her home in Haworth, just 51 miles away as the crow flies.
If you’re a typical baby boomer when you hear Liverpool you think the Beatles and Ed Sullivan. If you were a typical 18th century British commoner you would think rum, sugar and slave ships. That’s right. By 1795, the city that sent rock and roll to America controlled 80% of the British and 40% of the entire European slave trade. That’s probably also why the International Slavery Museum is located there. Although Britain abolished participation in the slave trade in 1807, the city had become well established and prosperous enough to survive and many continued to participate in the slave trade illegally through the 1880’s.
Remnants of the slave trade abound in Liverpool. Here is Speke Hall, the ancestral home of the Norris family. One of the first participants in the slave trade, the Norris family sent the first slave ship, The Blessing, from the Liverpool docks in October 1700. And in the corner of the courtyard of St Nicholas Church, slave shackles were sold. The city’s magnificent town hall, a testament to its wealth, sports a frieze of elephants and black heads. The Sea Forth docks take their name from Sea Forth House, owned by a large slave trader who received a settlement of about $10 million dollars when participation in the slave trade was abolished in Britain. Ropes for the sailing ships were made on Bold Street, named after slave merchant, Jonas Bold. Penny Lane? It was probably named after James Penny, a captain of nine slave ships and an investor in 40 more. (Harder to sing that kicky tune now, isn’t it?)


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