December 30, 2003

Wideman's War Against White People: The Worst American Essay of 2003

What's going on? -- Marvin Gaye

by Jerome du Bois

TPB, Esquire, the lawyer with heartfelt depth and impeccable taste over at Unbillable Hours, has a précis on his sidebar about The Best American Essays 2003, which includes this warning:

There's a particularly bad and frustrating essay by John Edgar Wideman in here that I recommend avoiding. It's his take on 9/11, which can be boiled down to "since white people had slavery, they deserve 9/11." His writing style is atrocious (i.e., he uses strange structures that lack rhythm and often seem to need a different form of punctuation than what was given), and his views are absurd and hateful (against Jews in particular, and whites in general).[my emphasis.]

Well, this sounds familiar. Catherine King, of this blog, just got done posting a long piece on the HairStories art exhibition at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), the catalogue to which contains vicious black racist and anti-American statements by African-American academics, artists, writers, and businesspeople. She has confronted one of them, Arizona State University's Dr. Neal Lester, about these words, but he, after contacting her first, has ducked down into some professorial spider hole. (Have you seen that brother, baby, supine in the shadows?) Earlier, Ms. King's profile of painter (and ASU professor) Beverly McIver uncovered similar ugly sentiments. And now I learn that Wideman recently gave a lecture (at SMoCA) as a Distinguished Visting Writer (at ASU).( How cozy. Dots, connect yourselves; I've got other matters to attend to.)

I got the book and read Wideman's essay, and the volume's introduction. Then I traced what I could of the reactions to it since the original publication, in the March 2002 Harper's magazine. I found only two subsequent substantial objections, plus a third in a letter, which I'll cover below.

I'll also show how, despite being one of the most-honored American writers in our nation's history, TPB nailed it: Mr. Wideman has written a terrible essay, which disgraces and degrades our beautiful language; and, as one who has lived a life of tenured privelege since at least 1984, I'll show how he has hypocritically, ungratefully, and viciously spit in the face of the country which made it possible for him to go after every award and honor he possesses. John Edgar Wideman -- called "The Astonishing John Wideman" by Look Magazine in 1963 -- disgraces his own history.

[UPDATE: Dr. Neal Lester sent us an email. You can read it, and our response, in the Comments section.]

You can read "Whose War" (in the magazine it was subtitled "The Color of Terror," but not in the book) online for free, but I bought the book because I needed the introduction, where the editor gives reasons for his or her choices. This year's editor, Anne Fadiman of The American Scholar, writes in her introduction (page xx):

There were many essays about September 11, 2001. I chose Elaine Scarry's "Citizenship in Emergency" and John Edgar Wideman's "Whose War," two polemics that couldn't be more different from each other, because each made me look in a new way at something about which I had thought originality was no longer possible. I concluded that the best work on 9/11 was probably written not in 2001 but in 2002. Time allowed these writers to shake off the conventional responses that would have come more easily and find something hard and brilliant and uncomfortable underneath.[my emphasis]

She actually enjoyed Wideman's essay more than most of the others. I know, because she chose five passages from five essays (out of twenty-four) to showcase "the glories of essays," as she put it. Here is Wideman's passage, from the beginning of the second section (page 322):

Hear what I'm saying. We ain't going nowhere, as the boys in the hood be saying. Nowhere. If you promote all the surviving Afghans to the status of honorary Americans, Mr. President, where exactly on the bus does that leave me. When do I get paid. When can I expect my invitation to the ranch. I hear Mr. Putin's wearing jingle-jangle silver spurs around his dacha. Heard you fixed him up with an eight-figure advance on his memoirs. Is it true he's iced up to be the Marlboro man after he retires from Russia. Anything left under the table for me. And mine.

This is godawful, and the content is sophomoric indymedia conspiracy buzz. Worse, Ms. Fadiman actually includes an interesting section in her introduction that reproduces the minutiae -- the sublime nitpicking -- of editing, word by word. So why is her judgment so bad here?

Here's another passage, chosen by me, from the essay's fifth paragraph, with Wideman in a reverie in his Lower East Side apartment, thinking about writing his essay:

And the man standing at the window retracts his long arms from the top of the upper pane he's lowered to rest on as he stares. Then all of him retracts. Picture him standing a few moments ago where there's emptiness now. Picture him rising from a couch where he'd been stretched out, his back cushioned against the couch's arm, then rising and walking to the window. Now visualize the film running backward, the special effect of him sucked back like red wine spilled from the lip of a jug returning to fill the jug's belly, him restored exactly, legs stretched out, back against the couch's cushioned arm. Because that's who I am. What I'm doing and did. I'm the same man, a bit older now, but still a man like him, restless, worried, trying to fashion some tolerable response with words to a situation so collapsed, so asphyxiated by words, words, it's an abomination, an affront to dead people, to toss any more words on the ruins of what happened to them.

This is godawful and embarrassing and dishonest, as this Rhodes Scholar goes ahead and affronts dead people, ignores what he's just written, and blithely tosses many more dull, asphyxiating words on our ruins. Picture him receiving the MacArthur Grant. Picture him receiving PEN/Faulkner (twice!), Lannan, and the American Book Award. What's the matter with those judges? And pass that red wine! Here's a little more:

I, too, return to the couch, return also to the thought of a person alone singing in the shower. A sad thought, because all writing pretends to be something it's not, something it can't be: something or someone other, but sooner or later the writing will be snuffed back into its jug, back where I am, a writer a step, maybe two, behind my lemming words scuffling over the edge of the abyss.

I know how they feel. This is one long short essay. Doesn't anyone edit this turkey? Notice the beginning of the deconstruction bait-and-switch, with the something someone other or not nonsense. He's setting the reader up for his redefinition of terror, terrorism, and especially terrorist. Right after this piece came out, in the March 2002 Harper's, Stanley Kurtz at NRO jumped on it. In a March 7 column he put it this way:

Wideman is desperate to disallow the reality of the terrorist threat. He can't do it through an analysis of Islamic society, the technology of mass destruction, or homeland defense, so instead he tries to conjure away the terrorist threat with standard-issue techniques of deconstruction. We use the word "terrorist," Wideman says, to deny the possibility of "reasoned exchange" with our foes, to project the evil in ourselves onto a despised "Other." Funny, I thought it was the terrorists themselves who'd traded in reasoned exchange for murderous scapegoating.

Wideman finally leaves the window and gets to writing. After dragging out the old discredited vocabulary --

The designation terrorist is produced by the one-way gaze of power.

To label an enemy a terrorist confers the same invisibility a colonist's gaze confers upon the native.

-- he really turns on the fog machine:

For those who don't lose a child's knack for perceiving the aural archaeology within the sound of words, words carry forward fragments, sound bites that reveal a word's history, its layered onomatopoeic sources, its multiplicity of shadowed meanings. Terror embeds a grab bag of unsettling echoes: tear (as in rip) (as in run fast), terra (earth, ground, grave, dirt, unfamiliar turf), err (mistake), air (terra firma's opposite element), eerie (strange, unnatural), error (of our ways), roar-r-r (beasts, machines, parents, gods). Of course any word's repertoire is arbitrary and precise, but that's also the point, the power of puns, double entendre, words migrating among languages, Freudian slips, Lacan's "breaks," all calling attention to the unconscious, archaic intentionality buried in the words.

La, la, la-de-dah. Five months after Mohammed Atta puts the pedal to the metal and vaporizes thousands of us, this knucklehead denigrates them all and wastes precious time saying nothing, nothing, nothing -- and then worse. Here's the payoff:

Those who mount a challenge to established order are not the embodiment of evil. Horrifically bloody, criminal acts may blot the humanity of the perpetrators and stimulate terror in victims and survivors, but the ones who perpetrate such deeds are not the source of the terror within us. To call these people terrorists or evil, even to maintain our absolute distinction between victims and perpetrators, exercises the blind, one-way gaze of power . . . [my emphasis]

There's more, but I have to clean the vomit off it first. (By the way, "blind, one-way gaze of power" is incoherent -- if it's blind, how can it gaze, how can it be powerful, and how many ways can one gaze anyways?) Okay, here:

. . . perpetuates the reign of the irrational and supernatural, closes down the possibility that by speaking to one another we might formulate appropriate responses, even to the unthinkable.

K.J. Walters of Monroe, NY, has got your appropriate response right here:

I do not mean to trivialize Wideman's anger. He reminds me, however, of the indignant adolescent idealist on first discovering that the world is not perfect, or of the street-corner preacher, a man as free as any other, proclaiming himself to be a slave and pointing his accusatory finger at all of the people around him, people neither more nor less enslaved than he is.

And I have your inappropriate response right here: Fuck you, John Edgar Wideman. They made them jump, Jack. These creatures you want to promote to the status of people drove hundreds of innocents to a horrible Hobson's choice between incineration and a heart-stopping death plunge. So, for starters, fuck you.

Now come back to your window, John Edgar Wideman; slide up the pane, breathe in the complicated living air, then lean out over your nine-story Lower East Side view, and, with your eyes wide open, just breathe in, and out . . . about three thousand times . . . And just to be clear: I'm not interested in changing your mind; I simply want to shame and disgrace you, you dishonorable man.

CODA: Now, of course I don't anticipate any response from Mr. Wideman. As I said, I don't care what he thinks. But I already know the kind of pubescent sniveling to expect. Ann Marlowe, a fellow New York writer to J.E.W. [?!], wrote an open letter to in March 2003 that referred to the Harper's piece of the previous year; and his response to her letter, although enraging, is unintentionally hilarious -- it has a sputter-factor of about nine point five -- and recalls Mr. Walters's prescient indignant adolescent image. First, an excerpt from Ms. Marlowe's letter:

In your Harper’s essay you tried to assimilate terrorists to oppressed people of color, writing “to label an enemy a terrorist confers the same invisibility a colonist’s gaze confers upon the native.” You further claimed that calling someone a “terrorist” is “a refusal of dialogue, a negation of the other.” This is casually outrageous: what do terrorists do if not refuse dialogue and murder others? It is simply untrue that “anybody or everybody” could be lumped in as a terrorist. The word does have particular meanings and it is wise to keep them in mind.

Ms. Marlowe's essay is available free online, but Mr. Wideman's response requires money, so I'll leave it to the reader to both trust me, and to fill in whatever blanks he leaves below (and put down that drink):

I have appended an exhausting but not exhaustive list of examples of how your racialized prospective [sic] distorts. Speaking of being proleptic, the problems exemplified by your essay plague us all. The important point is to acknowledge that we are victims of an unsavory history -- colonialism, gender prejudice, class prejudice, etc . . . etc -- and only through constant self-examination and criticism of ourselves and others can we hope not to free ourselves of prejudice but to stay alert and minimize the damage we do.

  • The phrase "race is something we are all born with" racializes biology and human nature.

  • The phrase "celebrated black novelist and academic" racializes literature and learning.

  • The phrase "minority-group tic" racializes culture.

  • The phrase describing American foreign policy "there has always been a moral dimension to our talking about such matters and this is part of our national identity" racializes nationality.

  • The phrase "you dishonor the real victims of racism" racializes human suffering by suggesting a hierarchy of suffering.

  • The phrase "no white writer could get away with your charge" racializes criticism.

  • The phrase "specter of lynching" (lynching is your word, not mine) racializes violence.

  • The phrase "if your feud with Powell were between Jews, my dead uncles would be clucking "self-hatredself-hatred" racializes disagreement between members of minority groups as well as trivializing a group's self-critical capacity. (Must it always be my race right or wrong, Ms. Marlowe?)

  • The phrase "attacking one's own more harshly than any outsider would" racializes controversy and lumps together all members of a group in a demeaning, reductive fashion, as well as perpetuating the notion of an uncrossable racial line dividing "outsiders and insiders."

  • The phrase "no bottles of Chateau-Lafite have yet become strange fruit" racializes symbolism and metaphor by suggesting no semantic parallel, no shared threat of evil intent, no equally dire consequences, no potential for nationality-baiting to escalate dangerously.

    Ask any teacher of a multi-culti fourth grade, and he or she will tell you how often and how quickly they whip out the race meme (which functions as a free pass on bad behavior): "You're just racist, you're just racist." Is that a racist statement? No, it's a human one, spoken from experience.

    But John Edgar Wideman, sixty plus years old, should be ashamed of himself. He just brings out that tired old hammer, racialism, but it doesn't have that much weight anymore; in fact, it looks ridiculous.

    I have a feeling, though, that this will never stop Mr. Wideman. I hesitate to refer to one of his latest short stories, because it will sound as if I am picking some extreme example simply to tar him, so to speak, with one of the ugliest images I've run across, and I've read widely. But he proudly publishes it under his own name, so . . . you've been warned.

    Published on the UPENN online magazine crosscurrents, the story is called "hunters." The first, very short section, describes how two white hunters out in the woods shoot, perhaps accidentally, but certainly mortally, two black women; and then they decide to rape them before they die. (I skimmed the rest.)

    I'm sorry to leave my readers with that image, but when Wideman comes out after the battle is over to bayonet the wounded, I reach for a rule I heard from a real veteran:

    When they bring it to you on a forked stick, you take it back under under a black flag.

    And I've also got some questions for the judges of our intellectual awards. Don't you?

    Posted by Jerome at 04:22 PM | TrackBack
  • December 25, 2003

    IJTIHAD: It's Arabic for Asking Questions

    by Jerome du Bois

    There is no future in a sacred myth. Why not? Because of our curiosity. . . Whatever we hold precious, we cannot protect it from our curiosity, because being who we are, one of the things we deem precious is the truth. Our love of truth is surely a central element in the meaning we find in our lives.

    . . . the only meaning of life worth caring about is one that can withstand our best efforts to examine it. -- Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, page 22.

    In an earlier post, "One Man, One Vote, Once," I called Islam a totalizing ideology that will be dragged down into oblivion because of its death-grip on the past. Perhaps I should have said, Islamism. Because Islam is made up of people, and people -- because of our curiosity -- are way more complicated, restless, and unsatisfied than any confining ideology. Also, I was reminded of something Dean Esmay wrote, in a comment thread on faith and politics: "the Enlightenment was made up primarily of Christian thinkers." That is, the only lasting change must come from within. It should be obvious that Islam is not monolithic, but we don't get exposed to much more than the writhing mustaches. Here are two quick glimpses of liberal possibilities in Islam from recent reading, one a whole nation, the other a single person.

    The nation is Indonesia and its stubborn polytheistic undercurrents, perfectly described by Christopher Hitchens -- really, he's in fine form here -- in the January 2004 Vanity Fair (not available online.)

    The person is the lesbian Muslim and self-taught Koranic scholar Irshad Manji, author of "The Trouble With Islam," in a short interview in the NYT (12/21/03) by John Glassie. I came away from both with at least a little more hope that ijtihad -- asking questions, being curious, thinking outside the Koran -- can show the complications in this tradition, and a way out of the dead end of puritanical fanaticism.

    Let Ms. Manji go first, since she probably would anyway:

    God gave me a thick skin, a big brain, and, I'll be the first to admit, a big mouth.

    So all I'm asking of Muslims is to take ownership of the role we play in what ails Islam.

    [John Glassie:] Some of your critics complain that you don't understand the Koran. You did get kicked out of the madrasa at age 14.

    I got kicked out for asking questions, which is a very scholarly thing to do. And I spent the next 20 years studying Islam on my own. I acknowledge that the Koran is difficult and complicated. I celebrate that. The Koran is complicated precisely because of its contradictions and ambiguities. I challenge the men with fancy titles to acknowledge just how complicated the Koran is. You don't need credentials to be a simpleton.

    . . . In the early decades of Islam, thanks to ijtihad, as many as 135 different schools of Islamic thought were allowed to flourish. In the city of Cordoba alone, there were 70 libraries. Seventy! Think about it. That's one for every virgin promised to today's Muslim martyrs. Books back then, and babes today. That's a telling contrast in priorities.

    And she is a telling contrast in Islamic personalities, who are usually grim and nitpicky. (Think Ibrahim Hooper.) Mansour Ijaz, a formidable intellect and a fearless man, is an exception, and it will be interesting to track his continuing spiritual journey. And so it is with Ms. Manji, a sharp thin wedge in the obdurate obsidian wall of Islamist fundamentalism.

    The Hitchens piece is rich, funny, and historically informative. I'll cover just a couple of points, and resist the temptation to regale you with details -- looking for a telltale blue bruise on the forehead, or flying to the wrong island and having a panic attack, or drinking at Paddy's Reloaded on Bali, or -- okay, okay.

    The first point is that Indonesia is persistently anti-Arab, and especially anti-Wahhabist.

    "There is a saying here," I was told by Bambang Harymurti, editor in chief of Tempo. "If you see a snake and an Arab, take care of the Arab first."

    . . . Indonesian pilgrims, making the hajj to Saudi Arabia, did not much like what they saw of Saudi society, with its corruption and fanaticism.

    . . . Islamic parties failed to get seven words calling for Sharia law inscribed in the Indonesian constitution in 1945, and they have failed dismally ever since, at every election, to have the seven missing words reinstated.

    Perhaps because sharia is primarily an Arab concept. The second point follows from Hitchens characterization of this sprawling archipelago: "an ancient, ramshackle polytheistic civilization." He uses Amrozi, the Islamist Bali bomber, as an example. Amrozi made his Wahhabist bones by attacking an ancient non-Islamic shrine:

    In the village of Tenggulun, in East Java, where he was born, Muslims have a syncretic relationship with older, animistic and traditional religions, and there are shrines and tombs consecrated to local "saints" and holy men. In 1987, Amrozi torched one these venerated places and thus touched off a bitter quarrel with the supporters of Nahdlatul Ulama, a strong centrist Muslim group. [My emphasis. Hitchens doesn't pursue this point, but by mentioning it he hints it's important. I think it's psychologically significant.]

    It appears Indonesians are not afraid to entertain and explore alternative explanations of reality, the past, ancestors, nature spirits, and gods and goddesses. Which, of course, doesn't make them saints -- e.g., the horrifying coup of 1965, and the East Timor slaughters -- but it makes them less susceptible to singular fanaticism. As Hitchens puts it in a marvelously breathless interrogatory:

    If Sukarno père could synthesize German stoicism and Italian Romanticism and stir in a bit of Communism, and if the Muslim incendiaries now want to impose Koranic uniformity and absolutism, but if the society itself can blend Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam and continue to hold elections, then which force will in the long run be the strongest?

    Good question.

    [CODA: Here are two Islamic web sites devoted to liberalizing Islam: (the English main page), and ISIS, the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society. I'm sure there are others, but we non-Muslims, even active bloggers like me, don't hear about them much, do we? We need to hear more -- more loudly, more often -- moderate Muslim voices.]

    Posted by Jerome at 12:23 PM | TrackBack

    December 22, 2003

    Two Cubans: In Order NOT To Forget

    by Jerome du Bois

    I'll be posting a long essay on Cuban art, the Eighth Havana Biennial, and the Arizona State University Art Museum (ASU) in the near future, but in the meantime I can introduce the theme by introducing you to two Cubans. One is Kcho, a now-famous Cuban artist who often employs a boat theme, as in this one that ASU is so proud of owning:

    KCHO, Para Olvidar (In Order To Forget), 1996, ASU Art Museum Collection

    When I first saw this piece in the "Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island" exhibition back in 1998 I was, of course, deeply moved. And completely ignorant, like most people, of the true irony and price of survival on that dystopian island, where a doctor qualified to practice in the United States earns twenty dollars a month.

    Well, I've been educating myself in the interval. Today, I read in the Art Newspaper an illuminating update on Kcho, who, in the interval, seems to have done quite well for his well-fed self:

    . . . an anonymous collector from Monaco paying $11,000 for a drawing by Kcho, an artist whose signature motif is a simple boat that might be interpreted as an allusion to Cubans’ efforts to escape the island. Somehow Kcho has been co-opted as a quasi-official artist, painting backdrops for Castro speeches and occupying a huge government house.

    Now I would like you to meet Sr. Manuel Vazquez Portal:


    He is a working, award-winning journalist and former teacher. He doesn't live in a huge government house. (He's pretty skinny, too.) He's in one of Castro's prisons. You should go read his letter on Val Prieto's invaluable Babalu Blog. Sr. Vazquez Portal's wife smuggled his diary out of the prison in June, and even though he knew his words in the world could bring him physical pain, he said: "I am prepared. If for the simple act of working as a journalist I was given an 18-year prison sentence, nothing else can be more unjust or excessive."

    Here's the beginning of his letter:

    Aguadores Prison, October 1, 2003
    Sra. Yolanda Huerga Cedeño

    My Puchita:

    My birthday will be on the 9th. I will not be able to enjoy your company, and Gabriel, who already misses me, will not be able to wake me up, with his eyes beaming for joy, to remind me that I'm getting older. When will we be able to enjoy these basic pleasures that we were used to, and which have been denied to us by the injustice and ferocity of a deadly regime?

    To this question, I cannot but answer the same way I always answer those who ask me when this hateful regime will be over: This will end when Cubans wish it. If we suffer under a tyranny, it's only because we put up with it, and so we deserve it. Until the Cuban people, in spite of the government's repression, decide to be free, we will continue to be slaves. As long as we continue believing the regime's barrage of propaganda, we will continue, like mesmerized toads, living in the muck.

    I don't know the etymology of "Kcho," but to me it now means "mesmerized toad." I wonder if he'll send Sr. Vazquez Portal a card for the holidays? After all, he knows where he lives, and where he might be until he is seventy years old.

    [UPDATE: And, for a vivid and sad portrait of everyday life right now on that dolorous island, go to Cubanet and read this.]

    Posted by Jerome at 09:12 PM | TrackBack

    December 18, 2003

    Why A Brilliant Autumn Leaf Is Like A Peacock's Tail

    by Jerome du Bois

    Science writer Carl Zimmer, at his new Loom, posts a beautiful tribute to the late great evolutionary biologist William Hamilton, who died in 2000, as he comments on a recent Biology Letters article about why autumn leaves change color:

    He and [co-author Samuel] Brown proposed that a brilliant leaf was, like a peacock's tail, a signal. A peacock's tail takes a huge investment of energy, energy that could otherwise be diverted to fighting off parasites or surviving other stresses. A strong male can afford to use up this energy, which makes the tail an honest ad for its parasite-fighting genes. In the case of leaves, trees are not sending signals to other trees -- they are sending signals to tree-eating insects.

    Now there is gathering support for this notion, as described in the article. This is the kind of deep, clever, inside-out thinking that makes studying evolution so exciting. And it's another of the thousands of strong strands that anchors Darwinism to reality "like Gulliver tied down in Lilliput," to use Daniel Dennett's memorable image.

    Please go check out Mr. Zimmer's piece. As for me, I'll be thinking about William Hamilton -- not Dawkins, not Gould, not Wilson, not peacocks, not even Dennett -- while I'm raking through my brilliant red and yellow back yard tomorrow morning.

    Posted by Jerome at 05:12 PM | TrackBack

    December 17, 2003

    Iraqi Shi'ite Muslims Burn Mandæan Books

    by Jerome du Bois

    One dark aspect of the new freedom in Iraq is the apparent freedom of Shi'ite Muslims to persecute Iraqi Christians, Jews, and others. Among those others are the Mandæan Sabians, a still-surviving ancient Gnostic sect. I know: I had never heard of them either; but their name for God is The Great Life.

    Three days ago Robert Spencer at Dhimmi Watch posted a report in which he quoted Fr. Keith Roderick, on the scene in Iraq:

    The Mandæans have a vast literature in Aramaic, written in Mandæic script. Much of this literature is very ancient. The man usually thought to be the most ancient Mandæan scribe, Zazai of Gawazta, is datable to around the year AD 270. Recent research in the colophons of Mandæan manuscripts dates a woman scribe, Slama daughter of Qidra, to approximately AD 200. The Mandæan Holy Book, the GINZA (Treasury), contains the teachings of John the Baptist. For two millenia, the Ginza has been transcribed by Mandæan priests, always in the same format. The Ginza is separated into a right and left part, Ginza Right and Ginza Left, and the two parts are organized in such a way that on reaching the end of Right Ginza, a reader must turn the volume upside down to read Ginza Left. The two parts face each other in the manner of two inscribed bowls enclosing the text within.

    Now this:

    Most Mandæan manuscripts remain in Mandæan hands in Iraq and Iran. These include many works unknown in the West. We fear that these may now be destroyed by Muslims. Three days ago a heartbroken Mandæan priest was telling me how his beloved library of 20,000 books, including 40 esoteric Mandæan manuscripts with wonderful Mandæan artwork, had been destroyed by Shi'ite Muslims shortly after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. The Mandæan Corpus should be seen as part of the cultural inheritance of mankind. Its destruction by ignorant Muslim fanatics would be a loss to all humanity.

    I can see the fire from here, and I can taste ashes in my mouth.

    Posted by Jerome at 11:11 AM | TrackBack

    December 15, 2003

    Just 'Fro Stories III: What I Took Away, and My FairStory

    by Catherine King

    What I Learned from HairStories

    Actually, I got an awful lot out of my HairStories experience. The exhibition got me thinking a lot about hair in general, and as a result I came to a deep insight about Hair Styling. Here is my very important revelation:

    In order for hair to be styled to the owner's personal expression, the hair's texture may first require preparation or modification.

    For kinky hair, or hair that the owner feels is too coarse to achieve the desired style, this will may or may not require relaxing in order to achieve the desired results. It may very well require some amount of relaxing.

    For straight hair, or hair that the owner knows is too fine to achieve the desired style, this will undoubtedly demand tons of curling ritutals and products in order to impart enough structure.

    Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Brown, male and female African-American Presidential Candidates, each has a hairstyle which perfectly illustrates Freedom of Choice in hairstyling. Reverend Sharpton and Congresswoman Mosesly-Braun, each proudly taking very different approaches to what the organizers of HairStories frame as the Issue of Black Hair. Reverend Sharpton has been celebrating the wonder of his hair by processing it into that bizarrely flowing flip ever since the Civil Rights Movement (and we never once had to listen to him complain about burning chemicals and/or irons). Congresswoman Mosesly-Braun, on the other hand, does (or doesn't do) something mysterious to get that always perfect-looking pretty, tight, shimmering crinkle. I am sure both candidates fully appreciate the hair benefits we all share in this great Land of a Hundred Thousand Hair Products.

    After many years of struggling with my own hair's inherent racial limitations, decades of desparate experimentation, I finally realize that in order to shape a desired style, it's about relaxing the curly just a little, and giving the limp just a bit of a boost -- in order to aquire maximum manageability. It's about the HairStyle-- the freely chosen HairStyle.

    I guess I've always realized that although I didn't start out with naturally 'good' hair, with faith in Research, Development and Free Enterprise, I could at least have confidence in having access to a constantly deepening and widening flow of better and better hairproducts. Given enough time, and the American Way, and I can have really GOOD hair.

    The other really important benefit I received from my HairStories experience is that I discovered the art writing of Kerry James Marshall in his monograph. The artist and the book are inspirational because he shares with us the artistic challenges that he consciously set before himself, even as a really little boy, in order to develop mastery:

    Everything I did was designed to make it possible to do pictures like the pictures I had seen . . .

    I tried to codify the difference between really great work and mediocre pictures. Without this standard, it seemed quite impossible to set a mark that would guide my explorations and serve as the foundation for critical self-evaluation.

    It's just so inspirational and kind of moving too, to picture a little boy trying so hard to grow into the great vision which he himself, independently, has dared to visualize. It caused me to acknowledge that I couldn't claim I was working really hard at my artistic practice without continual goal striving. It makes me demand more of my art.


    Just to balance the picture a little, I've prepared my own FairStory.

    And let me say, right off the bat, that I have memories of sitting long hours in the kitchen as a mere toddler, while the ammonia solution from my Tonette perm dripped into my little "not-green, not-blue" eyes. But you don't have to cry for me. Since about the age of 9, every step of my Hair Adventure has been taken freely and independently. The same is true of every other American of every age and color in this great Land of a Hundred Thousand Hair Products.

    This is all the stuff that has been done to my naturally thin, limp, "dirty-dishwater blonde" hair to try to get some curl and "body" into it (like those lucky black folks). (Also, tip to Dr. Neal Lester: Way past time to back out of Jasmine's Hair Life.)

    One other aside: Reading about the social warmth of black beauty salons makes me envious. There wasn't any female bonding going on in my mom's or my aunt's kitchens -- none the less, that little girl, the little me, understood it was about looking good, looking finished, like you cared about your appearance (which also felt good), so it never occurred to her to complain. Poker-straight, unfinished hair, was unacceptable. It made you look like white trash, a hillbilly, a hick -- a nonsophisticate, inadept and deficient at one's own grooming. She hated how it felt bad -- scratchy; it got stuck in your collar, got hung up on your ears and fell in your eyes. You couldn't let it hang down, but it drove you crazy pulled back. She hated how it looked bad -- plastered to your head like a wet dog, making you look like you had a small head, maybe making you look like you wern't very intelligent. Also, the smaller your head looked, the bigger your body looked, and you didn't want to draw stranger's eyes to your body.

    She wanted to look good and feel good. It seemed to help her self-esteem. So, without complaint, here we go then, the trials and tribulations of having naturally "silky" hair:

    My hair's been permed, teased, ratted, sprayed and braided. I've been spit curled with spit that wasn't even my own in front of the whole Sunday School choir (too traumatic -- don't go there) . . . I've learned my way around plastic rods, wound on rags, pin curls with bobby pins, pin curls with metal clips and SPOOLIES. I've wrestled with plastic rollers, steam rollers, electric rollers and sponge rollers. People, let me tell you, it hurt so much sleeping on those brush rollers just to get a little bend in my hateful straight hair! Don't feel sorry for me, though. In my freely undertaken journey of hair exploration I also mixed up and drank gallons of orange juice, that I might then use the empty orange concentrate cans to improvise JUMBO rollers. (A dramatic bouffant was produced with this one.) Bendable curling sticks were a space-age method. And I, too, have used the "death-defying white hot iron", and let me tell you, it burns white skin just like black.

    But the curling apparati were never enough without plenty of "setting" media, including, but not restricted to: DEP, Dippity-Do, mousses, volumizers, and hair cement.

    And finally, not to brag, but by this time I've gotten pretty good at making custom-blending my own hair extensions, inspired by the vast array of products at Sally's Beauty Supply.

    Posted by Jerome at 08:15 AM | TrackBack

    December 14, 2003

    American Beauty

    [Scroll down for Part One of Just 'Fro Stories, by Catherine King, about the SMoCA HairStories exhibition.]

    by Jerome du Bois

    Yesterday was a beautiful day, in Iraq and in Phoenix.

    In Iraq, no explanations necessary, just congratulations.

    In Phoenix, besides the glorious weather, American Beauty: Painting and Sculpture from The Detroit Institute of Arts 1770-1920, at the Phoenix Art Museum.

    I know: this is the old stuff. Look at those dates! Oil and varnish! People wearing funny clothes! Frames so ornate they groan! But the lesson here is that most of it blows away most of the contemporary art several rooms away, in the traveling UBS collection. I strongly urge you to go look at them both. Not only is there a lot of major art to be seen, it's a great lesson in value and quality and talent, especially if you haven't seen any Damien Hirsts, Francesco Clementes, Gerhard Richters, Ed Ruschas or Julian Schnabels, for example, up close. [Speaking of close, the Chuck Close pastel, Mark, is an exception. So is the big Boetti ballpoint piece. And the haunted Keifer.]

    John Singleton Copley versus David Salle? Versus Eric Fischl? Please. Go back to Cali, boys. Try to duplicate, or come close to, the red uniform of Colonel John Montresor, painted around 1771. Or the mesmerizing swirling in the silver hat held by Mrs. Clark Gayton. The Duchess-of-Alba attitude of William Merritt Chase's Portrait of a Lady in Black would bring Fischl, supposedly known for psychological tension, whimpering to his knees. (Same with the pallid tableaux of the neo-post-Freudian Gregory Crewdson.)

    Compare Damien Hirst's dot painting (does the title, or date, matter? No? That oughta tell ya somethin'), or Richter's smearo abstraction (ditto), to John Haberle's 1890 life-size canvas, Grandma's Hearthstone. (I know, that title! -- but wait.) With the Hirst you get the familiar ocular ghosting that always happens with evenly-spaced dots, until you're . . . evenly spaced. Then you're done.

    With the Richter, you can imagine his ironic, distanced infantilism as he subsumes his undeniable talent and "slides by on grease," as Robert Lowell said in another context.

    But the Haberle, a life-sized trompe l'oeil of a big fireplace hearth, is filled with the meticulous details of everyday life, including some of the things that both Richter and Hirst have included in their work. Is it sentimental? Of course not. Richter and Hirst have slid by on grease their whole careers. I know next to nothing of Haberle's life, except that he was an excellent currency counterfeiter, so maybe he was an operator, too; but the painting is about complicated life, with some of its essential clutter, and with fire at its heart. The cane in the corner even looks weary of the weight of its owner.

    (If that seems unfair comparison -- abstraction versus representation -- then compare those two with just the side of the barn in William Sydney Mount's modest-sized The Banjo Player.)

    There was not much evidence of life's substance in the UBS collection. Giant photographs -- the Struths and Gurskys -- seem trapped by their size: that's all they're about. Tracey Emin's neon Trust Me? I think not. Susan Rothenberg's huge jittery neurotics? No. Bruce Nauman's deadass deadpan words, Read/Reap? Real Deep. Lorna Simpson's submental-puzzle photo-text piece? The longer you look at it, the dumber you feel -- about wasting your time.

    You get the picture.

    Posted by Jerome at 05:15 AM | TrackBack

    December 13, 2003

    Just 'Fro Stories: How SMoCA and New Times Jump Right in Da Guilted Frame; or, Don't Blame Your Bad Black Hair Days on My White Skin

    [This is the first part of a three-part review of the HairStories art exhibition at SMoCA, concerning the theme and core of the show. The other two parts, explained below, will follow shortly.]

    "Good" hair flowed. It was silky, smooth, shiny, and sometimes blonde. It blew around wildly in the wind and then fell back into place -- perfectly. "Bad" hair was kinky. It was nappy and hard to comb. It needed to be tamed. (Dawnie Walton, "Natural Hair: Untangling the Fallacies of Good and Bad Hair," Florida A&M University Journey Magazine, August 1996)

    by Catherine King

    High on the right wall as one enters HairStories at SMoCA, latex letters spell out a quotation for Elastic QP, from a 2001 Sally Beauty Supply catalog:

    If you think in terms of good hair and bad hair, the problem isn't on your head.

    -- implying that someone may have some issues or baggage, psychological in nature. The problem with HairStories is that the exhibition itself is based on the strategy of letting erroneous, irresponsible thinking slide, or pass, rather than critically examining the self-imposed limitations of the recent past. When the issues are as important as personal and collective power, sniveling about past perceptions is no help at all in furthering the essential discussion about Race that must at some time no longer be avoided.

    [The dance piece "Hairstories," which inspired the art exhibition of the same name] has two things to say.

    1. People in the black Diaspora have long been shamed by the thick, tight-curling nature of their hair, their self-image undermined by its being judged ugly, even somehow "bad," by a dominant white culture fixated on European ideals of beauty.

    2. In recent decades the descendents of African-American slaves have rediscovered African concepts of glorious hair and used them audaciously to cultivate self-expression, self-worth, and cultural identity. -- from the Urban Bush Women website [emphasis added]

    The organizers of HairStories begin by attempting to foist off on the targeted audience (white, middle-class) the assumption that black Americans have been cosmetically deprived:

    Since slavery, African-American hair has been central to multitudes of racist notions that devalue and diminish the legitimacy of African-Americans in the New World. (Dr. Neal A. Lester, page 33)

    Some people have refused to admit that you can do whatever you want to do with your hair in 20th/21st Century America, no matter who you are. It's a claiming-POWER thing, which is more significant than a beauty bitch. The best art in the exhibition dealt with hair as an expression and embodiment of Psychological Power. The poorest art in the show was reactive to cultural notions and never got past alternately trying to kowtow or to blame.

    It isn't just about art, or hair, but a stubborn defeatism. African-American writer Debra Dickerson, in her 2000 book An American Story, describes her father's psychological legacy:

    Later, I came to understand that he both expected and needed blacks to fail, otherwise there was no proof of white perfidy and soullessness. He never understood that his fatalism was a self-fulfilling, self-defeating prophecy. . . Among ourselves, we say "the white man's ice is colder" to describe the many of us who won't believe or value anything unless it comes from white people. . .

    Before I can discuss my most and least favorite pieces in the show -- which I will -- I feel I must address the easy and shameful way SMoCA, its backers, the writers, curators, organizers and some media have jumped right into the black racism frame. And some of the artists either followed suit or helped initiate it. There are shockingly anti-American endorsements in the catalogue as well. Nevertheless, HairStories led me to a more profound realization of the responsibility of being a vital, thinking artist, as well as a higher level of hairstyling. Finally, in a tilt at balance, I will sum it all up with my own modest hair story -- my FairStory.

    Creative Writing Black Studies Style

    The writers in the exhibition catalogue didn't seem to let the lesson of Elastic QP sink in, because Good hair = flowing = white versus Bad Hair = kinky = black thinking, was defended and rationalized far more than it was overcome in the writing for HairStories.

    The show's premise was hatched after [curator Kim Curry-Evans took part in] "hairparties" Kathy Hotchner organized for African-American women from all walks of life here in the Valley for the purpose of swapping stories about their hair triumphs and tribulations . . .

    There is far more tribulation than triumph described in this catalogue, and reflected in the exhibition. A strong undercurrent of the show is portrayal of black beauty as a dark mirror of the oppressive white majority, the Cult of the Victim well-represented. Here are examples of the overwrought tone in which we are told of the anguish of styling one's hair in order to appease a society that demanded silkiness:

    In Burning Hair, 1993, [Cathleen] Lewis scorched unstretched canvas[wrong: it's a cotton gown made square] with a hot-comb -- a reminder of the damaging effects of the straightening process endured by many girls and women. (Ms. Curry-Evans, page 14)

    Even before chemical relaxers, hot combs heated on kitchen stove eyes and hot plates burned many scalps and left permanent marks on many an ear. (Dr. Lester, page 34.)

    The quest for straight hair was often a tortuous obsession for the slaves.
    (Byrd & Tharps, Hair Story, page 17.)

    There is a shipload of blaming others needlessly for what one is free to change at any time. Madam C.J. Walker made herself a female millionaire beginning 97 years ago by developing an array of wonderful products exclusively for black hair. That's a tremendous accomplishment, inspirational I should think. It was also a very long time ago.

    The essays in the catalog exaggerate racial dichotomy, attempting to rewrite, to twist (or overlook, or ignore) recent history by whining, falsely, that we all haven't had complete freedom to develop hair that's knotted, polka-dotted, twisted, beaded, braided, powdered, flowered, and confettied, spangled, bangled, dangled and spaghettied going on -- what -- at least forty years now.

    Bad Grandma Stories

    The foolish and destructive negative beauty and self-image lessons passed down from generations of slaves' descendants are characterized as revered knowledge because of their sources. And Dr. Lester, consulting scholar and essay contributor, along with Guest Curator Kim Curry-Evans, continue to pass the buck as far as ideological responsibility goes.

    To slaves -- particularly to slave women tending white children with silky hair -- hair became an ideal. (Dr. Lester, page 33)

    From Dawnie Walton's "Natural Hair" [see above; of course, being a university publication, this legitimizes the racist assertions]:

    I learned "hair aesthetics" from my grandmother, who straightened her hair with a hot-comb lying on the eye of a lit stove burner. I watched the smoke coming from her thinned hair, and I smelled it burning -- but it was all in the name of "good" hair. I learned from my mother, who took me to get my hair permed when I was seven years old and too nappy-headed for a hot-comb to handle. I learned from television, which taught me that Buckwheat was stupid and Barbie was ideal . . .

    To Dawnie:

    I don't want you to blame my white race because your black grandma taught you some bullshit. Why don't you blame her for trying to teach you to hate your kinky hair? Why don't you teach yourself different as you grow older and hopefully wiser? Isn't that really up to you to do for yourself? Or is it easier to project that blame farther out and cast it over the whole white race?

    Big Bad Art Critic Joins Art Museum Inside Guilted White Frame

    From Kathleen Vanesian's latest Phoenix New Times art column:

    HairStories is a potent reminder that it's been less than 40 years since the civil rights movement [sic] in this country began the long, painful process of weeding out long-entrenched prejudices that forced African-Americans to use separate rest rooms, to attend separate schools and to straighten their hair with white-hot, death-defying instruments of torture, including chemicals and potions like lye, kerosene and axle grease -- or to hide it with wigs -- so that they would look whiter and, thus, be socially more acceptable.[my emphasis]

    Vanesian uses the same overwrought tone in her standup foldup review as the writers of the essays in the catalogue. I thought she told her readers, a few reviews ago, that she was going to be so formidable -- the bitch is back, no PR flack, and so on -- but here there's no criticism from this critic. Consider this excerpt:

    I eavesdropped on one docent, who pointed to a series of black-and-white photographic self-portraits titled "Don't Hate Me Because I'm Beautiful" (1996) by Cynthia Wiggins, the title a takeoff on the Kelly LeBrock shampoo commercial from several years ago. The well-executed images are unrelenting close-ups of Wiggins' less than perfect complexion and mane of untamed hair, which has been allowed to grow in naturally.

    "Who thinks the lady in the photos is beautiful?" chirps a graying, white male docent (who deserves a Best Explanation of a Difficult Social Issue Award) to his all-white, obviously middle-class, fourth-grade entourage. Two, then three hands tentatively rise.

    "And who thinks the lady is not beautiful?" All the boys thrust their hands skyward. With an almost imperceptible sigh, but unflagging cheerfulness, the dogged docent begins a lesson that should have been learned long ago from parents, school and church:

    "Where do we learn what is beautiful? And who sets the standard of what is beautiful?"
    Herd those white schoolkids right in to Da Guilted Frame! What disingenuous propagandizing! It is inappropriate for the art museum docents to be using scripts that prompt white, obviously middle-class, little boys to make judgements about female beauty (sexual attractiveness) just to prove the racist agenda of the show's organizers.

    Why is the administration okaying a script that is trying to draw adult responses from little boys selected for their racial and social characteristics? Most of these little boys weren't even alive or aware when the commercial this piece riffs on was made. Is it fair to lead them with questions the responses to which are going to be used to condemn them? Because Cynthia Wiggins appears multiplied six times before them, looking her worst, unkempt and unadorned, we are to blame the little white boys for not finding her beautiful? Nobody told them that Ms. Wiggins's face had been "purposefully darkened by make-up (she is light-skinned) [page14]." Why not? And why did she do that? The implications behind this overheard exchange are racist and unethical.

    Beverly McIver, hogging a whole wall elsewhere in the show, appearing in her trademark clown shtick, longing to be embraced, costume, black greasepaint and all -- yech! -- poses a similar ridiculous dilemma: "Do You Think I Am Pretty?" -- and apparently, if one isn't turned on by the Fat Clown Look, then one is racist against black women. Just because Cynthia Wiggins and Beverly McIver have no pride in their appearances, how is that our fault?

    If our star recipient of the Best Explanation of a Difficult Social Issue Award had turned his little group of fourth-graders ninety degrees to the right they would have seen, in a more modest scale and without duplication, another photographic portrait, this one of the stone cold gorgeous Kathleen Cleaver. [Not available for reproduction, but look below.]
    If our disingenuous docent (I'm taking back his award) had been honest enough to ask the boys if they found Kathleen Cleaver beautiful, I am quite sure they would have, unanimously. But then, that would not be the answer or the response sought by the organizers of HairStories. So, point the kids toward a frumpy woman or a freak, and then feel racially vindicated when the white middle-classers prefer a different aesthetic. See? We told you so!

    It's a trap. Ms. Wiggins is already trying to be ugly on purpose -- the makeup, the title -- and it has nothing to do with her race. (Ditto with Ms. McIver.) The little boys were ambushed. Why didn't she put on some real makeup and fix her hair before presenting her multiple self? Oh, am I being sexist? And the docent with his suggestive, leading questions wasn't? And what ever happened to the incisive art critic? Not there; just some dumb-ass fool smiling warmly like an indulgent aunt.

    Oh, Really? That's Not How I Remember It.

    More history twisting in "Black Hair and Art: Collective Consciousness," where Ms. Curry-Evans writes

    [At the hair parties] there were . . . recollections [from the 60s/70s] of powerfully big Afros and the hostility they attracted.

    For whites, the Afro was synonymous with Black militancy . . .

    I have my own recollections of an active life in the late sixties and the early seventies in the Bay Area, stomping grounds of the Black Panthers, and even then and there whites I knew did not feel even mildly threatened by the Afro. Maybe because empathetic, respected, even beloved, public figures and hundreds of thousands of curly-headed (some people have all the luck) long-haired white hippie kids, as well as Black Panthers, had already been wearing 'fros for several years.

    Is there a little bit of wanting it both ways here, wanting to be threatening and oppositional, while at the same time wanting to claim passive, enforced victimhood? This sounds a lot like Thelma Golden, curator of the popular "Freestyling" exhibition a couple of years ago, when she explained the post-black position: "[it] recognizes racial identity as something to be simultaneously defied and kept alive; it's both a hollow social construction and a reality with an indispensable history." How convenient, and how pomo. (Quoted by Sarah Valdez in Art in America.)

    "With This Hair:" The Transformation of Neal Lester into Natty Dread

    Dr. Neal A. Lester, consulting scholar for HairStories sure wants it both ways. He wants to be on the edge and the center of attention at the same time.

    For me, the issue is not that people are curious about my hairstyle but that public representations and acceptance of such hairstyles are far from the mainstream in this country. In this sense, the difference becomes exoticized, like a side-show. With this hair, I continue to learn much about myself and those around me.

    I'm not so sure about that, but Dr. Lester reveals that he has based an academic stance as well as attitudes at home on bad ideology, ideology which is never questioned -- just passed. He never requires himself to back up his own words:

    Since that moment in 1989 [when he started "locking" his hair], I have become more aware than ever that African-Americans en masse -- despite the alleged 1960's cultural and ethnic self-realization -- have not dealt with the "hair issue" in such a way as to prompt honest and sometimes painful self-examination. (page 31)

    He describes what happened after his dreadlocks started growing:

    Whites often mistake me for other black men with dreads . . . I was never mistaken for anyone when I wore the Military, flat-top fade. Often folks from across the rainbow want to touch my locks, as did a white cashier at a local restaurant. An Asian gentleman at an auto repair shop was curious: are the locks "real," he asked as he proceeded to touch them hesitantly to verify my response. Whites who heard his question immediately chimed in with questions. I began to tell the story of my locking journey . . . A few years ago, a young white mother was mortified when her three-year old son started running his hands through my hair . . . I was just as amused at her response as her son's curiousity.(page 41; emphasis added)

    While my students thought the new dreadlocked do was cool, some colleagues were curious about my motives . . . I have persevered as though on a mission . . . it was exciting to have the subject of my hair become part of interview conversations . . . a true demonstration of what and how I teach.

    Cascading some three or so inches past my shoulders, my dreads command attention. (Wait -- three? Is that a typo? A three-inch cascade? C'monnn.)

    . . . my hair requires little of me but generously affords me spiritual richness . . . Indeed, my hair continues to lead me toward greater self-knowledge . . . confirming Nekhena Evans's assertion in Hairlocking: Everything you Need to Know about Dread, African and Nubian Locks (1993), that "there's something about locks, in that even when a person decides to do it as a fashion statement, they're going through a healing and transformation process."

    (All I can say is, "Keep growin, mon.")

    The Bad Hair Days of a Biracial American Princess

    In his essay for the catalogue, Dr. Lester also shares with us his perverse obsession with his own daughter's hair texture and style.

    Dr. Lester writes about his anxieties concerning his biracial daughter:

    Family, friends and strangers were curious about Jasmine’s newborn skin tone . . . They also wondered anxiously over her hair texture . . . attention shifted to its characteristics . . . Without fail, whites consistently commented that Jasmine would have "nice hair," and blacks said that she would have "good hair." Both terms refer to hair that is closer to white people’s hair . . . (pp.31-32; emphasis added)

    Let me ask the white people out there, because this quote didn't exactly sound like each and every one of you, so I just wanted to check, did you or would you say that and what did you mean by nice hair? Because I'm white, and if that's our secret code for "long and silky," well, you ofays forgot to tell me.

    Get over your bad self, mon.

    The internalized good hair/bad hair thing is schizophrenically demonstrated as Dr. Lester finds his daughter's blown out hair an "embarrassing poof." Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver would probably take him to task for that. Poof, maybe, but what's the embarrassment about? So much anxiety is directed at Jasmine's skin color and hair texture by her father who goes around lecturing people about the heavy burden of the White Beauty Ideal, which he, like everyone, is free to lay down at any time.

    With blatant hypocrisy, Lester draws inferences about an ad’s rhetoric:

    The rhetoric of the advertisement makes clear that black hair in a "natural" state is undesireable. It needs to be "tamed," as if blackness was animalistic and whiteness was civilized . . . Hence, the struggle for straight hair becomes cyclical and self-perpetuating. [page 37]

    And yet, a few pages earlier, he had written:

    Although my wife and I participate in these straightening rituals [for his daughter Jasmine's hair], we recognize the expense, time and energy of waging a war against hair that cannot be tamed . . .

    In fact, let's have the whole story. Here's the father of 13-year-old Jasmine:

    Trying desperately to avoid the chemical relaxants and heat treatments that have historically straightened -- and damaged -- African-Americans’ hair, we tried blow-drying. What a big, poofy embarrassment! . . .

    We bit the bullet for chemical relaxing, which took almost three hours . . . A week after the first relaxing session, we washed Jasmine’s hair and quickly learned that beauty shop dos are hard to re-create at home. With a hot curling iron in my hand on one side of her head and another in her mother’s hand on the other side, we pulled and tugged and pressed, but with disappointing results. We phoned the cosmetologist . . .

    Now, four to five chemical relaxing sessions later, Jasmine still prefers her hair straight. No matter that we extol the beauty and healthiness of her natural curls, she wants straight hair . . . Even the discomfort of the unfortunate brushes of the hot curling iron against her skin fades when her hair is straight to her satisfaction. Although my wife and I participate in these straightening rituals, we recognize the expense, time and energy of waging a war against hair that cannot be tamed . . . (page 33)

    Dr. Lester relishes the belief (or hope) that there is still anyone out there who can be shocked by his locks. But the image he paints of himself as a grown man fussing like a nanny over his teenage daughter's hairdo doesn't seem so edgy -- just unhealthy.

    SMoCA Brings You The Twin Pam Slam Where It Hurts

    HairStories is also the first exhibition in the museum's short history to attempt thematically-specific artists' projects and extensive community partnerships, and as such tests new ground for us. The exhibition represents an innovative approach to the stubborn and highly-sensitive problem of class and race in America; a team-based approach to curatorial practice; an imaginative attempt to reach broader constituencies with challenging subject matter. (first Hairstories website, since revised)

    The black academic organizers and contributors to the show (and how many of the artists fit this category, by the way? Can you say . . . Beverly McIver?) are to some extent black racists.

    For example, Dr. Lester, SMoCA's consulting scholar, quotes hair-care specialist Pamela Ferrell on Neal Cohan's NPR show in late November 2001, two months after we had our hearts torn out:

    Ferrell challenged a guest who insisted that the hair issue as it related to African-Americans was not the same [as it was for whites]. She reminded [!] the audience of an ongoing effort on the part of racist white America to devalue and discriminate against African-Americans on the basis of hair differences:

    [White people: raise your hand if you're part of this "effort" . . . I thought so.]

    More Ferrell: "It's so interesting to hear the conversation and people talk about the Taliban controlling people in terms of their hair and not being able to cut it. And it's interesting how Americans act so concerned about people being oppressed when we know America is the world leader in oppression and discrimination . . ."[my emphasis]

    She doesn't acknowledge -- she is too cowardly to admit -- that she would never have been allowed to have her own business or practice cosmetology in Taliban Afghanistan. I wouldn't go to Pamela Ferrell's beauty salon if it were the last one on earth. But Dr. Lester -- whose precious princess Jasmine can drop into any beauty salon she wants to -- signs off on this anti-American horseshit, explaining to us how:

    Ferrell shows that hair seamlessly weaves the personal and the political, the private and the public and the past and present in the lives of African Americans.

    The great scholar has just pronounced two sentences of bullshit a "seamless weaving." But doesn't this indicate extremely low standards of debate, discourse, and proof? We all know America oppresses the whole wide world, case closed. Scales have fallen from eyes with a wave of Ferrell's verbal wand.

    Wait a minute . . . Was it the clearly black racist, Anti-American Pam Ferrell declaring an ongoing effort on the part of racist white America to devalue and discriminate against African-Americans on the basis of hair differences? -- or was that Arizona State University professor Dr. Neal Lester talking? It's clear that he is at least in 100% agreement if not the author of that statement.

    And SMoCA, as it physically sits in, soaks in, basks in, and profits from the glorious abundance, freedom, and affluence surrounding it, signs off on Dr. Lester's and Pamela Ferrell's old, poisonous lies. Way to lead, Susan Krane! Great use of money, Ted Decker! Fantastic PR, Bill Thompson! Thanks for being stand-up, Scottsdale!

    America hasn't been so bad for any of the black academics who spun and wove this exhibition. I predict that Dr. Lester's light, light brown great, great grandchildren will be puzzled and probably bored when they hear that one of their eight great, great grandfathers has a "HairStory." Why the bizarre negative obsession with hairstyles? In 22nd Century America, Land of a Million Hair Products, hairstylin' will have become elevated from ugly political trappings and raised to its proper, rarified level of Vanity, which will still be very important to "folks from across the rainbow." Dr. Lester's great, great grandchildren may never stop to think much about the tortuous days of slavery. Hopefully, they'll be way too happy just stylin' freely.

    More twisted history, this by omission, appears in Pamela Sneed’s "poem" to accompany Beverly McIver's work. It's called "MOVE" and it's about the Philadelphia tragedy of 1985. Ms. Sneed connects it to hair by noting that the MOVE people were the first she ever saw with dreadlocks [!], and somehow this was significant. More importantly, she then lists eight human-made tragedies and atrocities, including Amadou Diallo, Eleanor Bumpurs, Patrick Dorrismond, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Rwanda, Oklahoma City and Waco.

    Guess what she left out? The Holocaust, for one, and 9/11 for another.

    That's right: the Holocaust and 9/11 were omitted by Pamela Sneed -- just as that section of her rant, with those glaring omissions, is itself omitted from the exhibition catalogue. Why?

    A chicken-shit SMoCA maybe figured an omission of an omission would surely "pass" if all the tangible crap slipped so compliantly into the White Guilted Frame. But everyone who signed off on this catalogue should be ashamed to be part of it.

    [Part Two is here, and Part Three is here.

    Posted by Jerome at 01:05 PM | TrackBack

    December 12, 2003

    "One Man, One Vote, Once"

    by Jerome du Bois

    One subject I needed to add to the list in the previous post about our changing blog is, necessarily, Islam. While rereading Bernard Lewis's The Crisis of Islam, I came across this useful reminder whenever one hears Muslims -- anywhere -- claim the right of tolerance.

    [The ideology of democracies] requires them, even when in power, to give freedom and rights to the Islamist opposition. The Islamists, when in power, are under no such obligation. On the contrary, their principles require them to suppress what they see as impious and subversive activities.

    For Islamists, democracy, expressing the will of the people, is the road to power, but it is a one-way road, on which there is no return, no rejection of the sovereignty of God, as exercised through His chosen representatives. Their electoral policy has been classically summarized as "One man (men only), one vote, once." [pp.111-112]

    (This is our rock-and-hard place in Iraq.)

    Never forget: Islam is the last totalizing ideology, so it's doomed to failure, and it will eventually lay its tribalistic bones down with socialism, communism and fascism. But in the meantime it wishes to impose the bizarre fantasy of its world-suffocating manifold on the ever-expanding multifold of the real, modern, complicated world.

    If you love your freedom, and your life itself, go study the status of both of those things under Islam and its fantastical Caliphate.

    And, of course, this religion is no friend of the future; instead, it has a death grip on the past -- which will eventually drag it down into oblivion. But in the meantime we have to look at it clearly, with no political correction, no diplomatic veiling . . . no cover.

    No dhimmis here.

    Posted by Jerome at 12:46 PM | TrackBack

    This Blog is Changing

    by Jerome du Bois

    This blog is expanding to cover subjects other than national and international art. Besides long essays, we'll be posting short pieces on such subjects as Darwinism, haute couture, misogyny, the paranormal, cosmology, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, our own art, feminism, and monotheism vs. polytheism. Also quotes and meditations from current reading. So expect more frequent and varied postings.

    Our reasons are many, and our own, but I don't mind sharing that this photo of Grayson Perry (it could have been any of those Turner wankers) persuaded me about who really lives in, and wants to be part of, the real world.

    Finally, heads up: Catherine King's 9,000-word, three-part review of Hairstories, currently at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, is imminent, and incendiary, which you can probably tell from the title, and the opener:

    Just 'Fro Stories: How SMoCA and New Times Jump Right in Da Guilted Frame; or, Don't Blame Your Bad Black Hair Days on My White Skin

    by Catherine King

    High on the right wall as one enters HairStories at SMoCA, latex letters spell out a quotation for Elastic QP, from a 2001 Sally Beauty Supply catalog:

    If you think in terms of good hair and bad hair, the problem isn't on your head.

    -- implying that someone may have some issues or baggage, psychological in nature. The problem with HairStories is that the exhibition itself is based on the strategy of letting erroneous, irresponsible thinking slide, or pass, rather than critically examining the self-imposed limitations of the recent past. When the issues are as important as personal and collective power, sniveling about past perceptions is no help at all in furthering the essential discussion about Race that must at some time no longer be avoided.

    The organizers of HairStories begin by attempting to foist off on the targeted audience (white, middle-class) the assumption that black Americans have been cosmetically deprived:

    Since slavery, African-American hair has been central to multitudes of racist notions that devalue and diminish the legitimacy of African-Americans in the New World. (Dr. Neal A. Lester, page 33)

    Some people have refused to admit that you can do whatever you want to do with your hair in 20th/21st Century America, no matter who you are. It's a claiming-POWER thing, which is more significant than a beauty bitch. The best art in the exhibition dealt with hair as an expression and embodiment of Psychological Power. The poorest art in the show was reactive to cultural notions and never got past alternately trying to kowtow or to blame.

    Before I can discuss my most and least favorite pieces in the show -- which I will -- I feel I must address the easy and shameful way SMoCA, its backers, the writers, curators, organizers and some media have jumped right into the black racism frame. And some of the artists followed suit. (I'll show this through titled subsections.) There are shockingly anti-American endorsements in the catalogue as well. Nevertheless, HairStories led me to a more profound realization of the responsibility of being a vital, thinking artist, as well as a higher level of hairstyling. Finally, in a tilt at balance, I will sum it all up with my own modest hair story -- my FairStory.


    Posted by Jerome at 11:32 AM | TrackBack

    December 03, 2003

    Unfalling Angel


    This is a graphical representation of the internet courtesy of New Scientist.

    We rarely borrow images to place on this blog, but this wonderful map reminded me of one of my own hyperbolic metaphors, about something I hope will happen, far in the future. It comes at the end of my piece The Burning One in the Broken World, written originally in 1997:

    "Maybe we humans got smart and visionary real early, in the morning of our selves, and we created a common dream. [Harold] Bloom says, “Our dreams are less individual than we are.” So now, yes, I see it now, by the light of the Burning Man -- we shall form an Unfalling Angel from an uncanny incorporation, a constitution of souls, but without giving up our I-ness. And this Angel’s scintillating outline may be the fractally fertile Web/Net, the world’s infant Body Electric with its seething hive mind -- which, in the fullness of time, we shall awaken and use to clothe ourselves in glory as the nine billion blinding stars of the Garment of Light!"

    Posted by Jerome at 07:42 AM | TrackBack