Saturday, July 31, 2010

Post for Bobby, but interesting to all [maybe]:

About our Trickster John project -- I have no current title so TJ will do. To repeat what we discussed in person: Years ago I wrote a play for 5th or 6th grade. It was intended as the core of a curricular unit on slavery. I have always been interested in folklore , and when I took a course on the subject I learned that much of what I had loved was fakelore, usually invented by corporations to support their destructive habits and predatory ways. [ex: John Bunyon was created by logging companies to justify the rape of our natural resources. Only one actual folk tale featuring him could be found, and it was derivative and pornographic.]

Research into slave tales collected by ethnographers from those who had actually suffered under the South’s Noble Cause revealed a large collection of stories in the trickster mode. Most, if not all, societies have these tales. They range from Jack in the Germanic/English tradition; to Coyote or Raven in the Americas; to Anansi, who, Wikipedia informs me, is of West African origin. Torn from their native lands and cultures and forced into artificial groupings by the plantation system, the new Americans kept their old culture as alive as they could. One way was to turn old folk tales into new versions which reflected the horrors of captivity.

We all know of Brer Rabbit. Joel Chandler Harris’ character was based on actual slave tales, but Harris could not avoid racist assumptions, including a sense of Black inferiority. The tales of the character I prefer, sometimes called John, often called by many other names, were more edgy and often aimed at belittling and insulting Ol Massa and Ol Miss and other White authority figures. If Harris was told of these tales [and that is very unlikely], he was either incapable of or unwilling to repeat stories which suggested that the slaves could outsmart their White oppressors and strike back with demeaning stories about how smart a slave could be and how gullible a master often was. Think Hogan's Heroes with a sharp cutting edge.

I’ll do the re-write, unfortunately I haven’t yet found the play. I may have to start from scratch. You do the drawings. Which brings me to the purpose of this entry. I have asked you to join me in this project and that makes us partners. Should this ever be sold, we will simply split any royalties. The only problem that might arrive is if we disagree on contract terms with a publisher. Since these tend to be standardized, I don’t expect a problem. I will hold the copyright on the words, you on the art.

So, if we are to be coworkers, cocreators? coartists? artistes? Who cares? If we are to work together, let’s agree that you have the absolute final word on art and I on wording. Still, we need to work together. I suggest that we freely accept mutual critiques, but never forget who commands which portion and therefore has the final say.

All the verbiage in the paragraph above is an excuse for me to step outside the boundaries of common sense and discuss the artwork with you. Since my drawing skills are at a third grade level at best, this is extremely presumptuous of me, but you don’t mind. Do you?

If you do, stop reading now! You have been warned!

Continuing to read past this point constitutes complete acceptance of the above terms and conditions; plus any others I can think of later.

It’s OK, you can trust me.

Honest. You really can.

Of course, thousands of children's books go out to publishers every year. The whole issue is dependent upon many factors beyond our control, but who knows? It might sell.

So, to get to the grit and grind: The story is potentially divisive. It could be read as an attack on Whites, rather than on the White Supremacists who actually committed the crimes of slavery. It could also make slavery look fun and amusing. Here lie Scylla and Charybdis. We must navigate carefully. The point of the story, from my point of view, is to communicate nothing about Blacks or Whites, but instead to convey the inherent dignity and sense of personal value natural to all humanity. Unfortunately, slavery, which started largely nonracial, became purely racial as time wore on. While a form of white slavery found in bonded servants [one which reflected the biblical requirement that slaves eventually be freed], and slavery involving Amerinds faded, the Black/White version persisted and still haunts us today.

So why even go there? Because the issue is real and must be faced. I love both German and Japanese culture. Yet I feel the Germans have truly repented of the horrors their ancestors perpetrated in WW II, and made what repentance can be made, out of a genuine sense of contrition. A few [very few] Jews have actually emigrated back to their ancestral homes in Germany.

But, as much as I love Japan and her people, Japanese politics are still dominated by secret and powerful right wing groups which feel no remorse for the war or the atrocities committed during it. The issue is very complex, with most young Japanese as blissfully unaware of their past as most young Americans are of slavery [well, nonBlack young Americans anyway]. There are also many Japanese who are aware and wish to make appropriate acts of contrition and reconciliation with the world. For this, I hold Japan accountable. Not because they were worse than the Nazis, but because the nation remains sharply divided over the issue with many believing to this day that Japan was forced to go to war by United States’ aggression!

I see in Japan much of what I see in America. We need to face the horrors of slavery and make sincere acts of condition and reconciliation. We are better about it now than we were when I was child. I still recall the textbooks in school when Dad was stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi. They showed happy slaves who were well treated and benefited greatly from the benign rule of their masters. As I recall, the point was actually made that they were better off here than in Africa. God, it was sickening! Even at that age I knew it was a horrible lie.

Still, we have hardly faced our ugly past as well as the Germans have faced theirs. Worse, they have done so in only 60 years. We have had since 1865 to do so. I love my country too much to ignore this oversight. Curricula no longer justify slavery. Many teachers do fine units on the subject which are entirely fair and honest [within the context of the tender age of the children being taught. There are limits to what can be told to a child.] I recall a school wide project at Westside in which “slaves” escaped and were hunted by “slave catchers” It was fun, yes, but no one pretended that in real life there had been any joy in it for the escapees. Man, I have to pause and say, I had a fine staff back in those days. Genuinely great teachers who cared and made a real difference. I miss working with such people. That’s why I want to work with you on this.

My point is, great teaching notwithstanding, as a society we look a lot like Japan. Some of us, of all races, have and will continue to deal with the ugly past. Others, like the Texas Board of Education, want to rewrite history and make it clear that slavery was a minor and forgettable blip in American perfection and holiness. This work is, to me, a statement of man’s struggle for freedom and dignity under any conditions and a reaffirmation of the need for redemption.

How’s that for an inflated sense of self importance? I work at it.

Before I got deflected into all the verbiage above, I was going to talk about details. This is already too long for a blog entry, so I’ll make a second one later today for those details.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A few odds and ends:

Bobby, I have hope that I might yet be able to create those three art works I once described to you. I have no talent, but have been aware of the potential of "printers" which build up a three dimensional object layer by layer. The technology was not mature but was very expensive. Today, a home kit of the device is available. still rather costly at $750, but affordable. it can only create small objects, but it is a start.

I recall reading in the L A Times when I was in high school that there was too little water available to sustain a continually growing Southern California. Today we are suffering for ignoring what was well known to experts 40 years ago. In Monday's Times, an editorial comment on the water problem noted that Wesley Powell publicly declared, "Gentlemen, you are pilling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land." He was shouted down. This happened in 1893.

Today the superstitious, who prefer comforting advertising style sound bites to reality, refuse to believe in global warming. Here we go again.

The July/August issue of Skeptical Inquirer has an article entitled, Blindsided by a Culture of Disinformation by Alan J. Scott. and has, in its follow up section, another article entitled the Twenty Year Effort to Create Doubt about [sic.] Climate Change by John R. Mashey. Interesting articles, anyone who is interested can find the facts quite easily, so I won’t sum them up. the simple fact is that there is no serious scientific doubt about climate change, but more and more Americans are fooled by the noise of the deceivers into doubting reality.

I feel that the situation is well defined by the movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still. I love the original, and was very worried about a remake, but I found that I liked the new version. The point of the movie was that we humans are shortsighted, even self destructive in our refusal to face reality; but when the crisis becomes undeniable we muster our resources and make astounding efforts to correct the problem. Of course, it would have been cheaper and much easier to avoid it in the first place, but that is not how we function in a large group. To put it another way, we are very gullible and very easily conned, but eventually we manage to figure out what was obvious all along.

This offers hope, but the damage we are doing to the environment on many levels is very dangerous. We cannot simply assume that fixing our errors will be easy, or even possible. Still, hope exists.