The broad sweep of culture
What's Your Original face,
before your mother and father
-- Zen Koan
This quote speaks right to me and right to everyone who talks about cultural backgrounds, as if each race has its own culture separate and isolated from all the others. Once upon a time, the word culture was an idea, an aspiration, something special and profound.
Yes, we have ethnic food, but it is the very best of ethnic food that becomes part of the larger category of culture. And the culture of food comes from all kinds of diversity and backgrounds. Good is simply that, good. Anyone can eat it and the culinary programs teach variety and ethnicity to all students, as they should.
I have found that golumpki and pieroghi (my favorite ethnic foods) show up in multiple countries, slightly changed and modified to fit the availability of certain neighborhood food availability but, blintzes and crepes have much in commom with pieroghis, as do filled pastries in doughnut form. This is a positive thing; it highlights the fact that all of us are related, connected if you will.
Then there is music; it used to be called talking blues, and it came from the south. Even Bob Dylan did some right smart talking. And recitative in opera, and a long time ago chanting in almost every form and kind of religion. Now we have rap; some say it stems directly from Africa, others, ethnomusicoligists claim it sprung up in Cuba at about the same time. When I was growning up we read our poems to live jazz at the local coffee house. All of us of all these nationalities coming from related places, exploring and expounding together.
Loud music is loud music; in the movie "Serpico," the hero drives down the New York City streets with all the windows open and the radio at full volume singing opera, fresh from the Met, as loud as he can. Again I myself am prone to do that, especially certain symphonies, and what's worse, I will try to conduct while I am driving. Loud music is not an ethnic issue and it is certainly not a cultural issue, it is simply this, music that is loud, and whether you like rap or not, maybe if you really listened to it from time to time you would find much that is musically interesting and often it's layering is brilliant.
I grew up when Elvis and the Beatles was considered decadent and evil. Now I hear the Beatles in the aisles of my local supermarket.
Now I am moving on to dance -- a double or maybe a triple culture. Dance-music-design-etc-etc. If you are gong to blather on about culture make sure you know what the word culture stands for -- excellence in a field, that's what. If you are going to scream pro or con about grafitti -- read up on it. All grafitti is not the same. Like most visual art, some of it is execrable. Yet a simple print of a Keith Haring piece of work is going for $2,700. A print, not an original, a print. When you're yelling "racism," I yell right back, "ignorance."
Gang signs on buildings make me tired but some of the grafitti I've seen is just plain beautiful, and sometimes when a whole building is one big tribute it makes me weep. St. John the Divine in New York has a grafitti museum in the church and it can bring you to your knees, it is so powerful.
Last Thursday there was a raging debate on Facebook which was really about the boundaries of civility and respect for your neighbors. Everybody got heated and the ugly word "racism" reared up like a cobra dancing to a flute. Yet I will bet not one of those involved watched "American Masters" from 9 to 11 p.m. on PBS on Thursday. I did, and shame on you who missed it. My dear dear friend Bill T. Jones was the subject, and I will bet none of you reading this even knows who he is. If I am wrong, please let me know.
Bill is a gay black male about 60 years of age; HIV positive for over 30 years, and one of the outstanding intellects and collaborators of our lifetimes. And, yes, about 25 years ago he performed with his company on the back of a flatbed truck at Jerry Burrell Park. He said to me that he wanted those kids to see and hear something that they would remember forever. When I brought some of my kids to Skidmore to see a performance, he had some of the boys walk on his chest and stomach so they could see what good shape he was in. "Muscles come from hard work," he said. "Dancers are not pussy. They are strong men and women." This year he won the Freedom Medal from Barack Obama, though he was wise enough to state that he believed there was "possibly some political motivation in that."
On this program, a camera crew followed his choreographic and intellectual journey on a commission about Lincoln. He talked about his own struggle with the process and that early in his life Lincoln said some pretty disparaging things about people of color. "But he changed -- he grew and he was, after all, a product of his time."
And his company, ah, his company, black, white, hispanic, his co-director a Japanese woman, a lead dancer a woman from Turkey, discovered when he toured there. (and I was there too at that time). This is culture, this is excellence, and yet when I offered to speak about him at a local agency for nothing but the privilege of showing honor and knowledge, I was turned down on the grounds that a white woman speaking about a black male was inappropriate.
What do you think Bill would have made of that line? This man was a sharecropper's son who grew up in dire poverty in the South and doesn't have a mean or biased bone in his body. A temper, yes. He has a vision he drives all his associates to work toward, but the end result is simply sublime.
The Public Theater Forum annual meeting of movers and shakers in the arts world has as its central topic "Does Culture Make Us Who We Are?" Most definitely not silly statements that grafitti, loud music, etc., define a whole racial culture.
Oh yes, the grafitti which overwhelmed Central Park was done by 21 caucasian youth from Niskayuna now doing community service at an agency near you.
Annie Dillard wrote in her book "The Living" this statement about New York City in 1884: "One afternoon at an auction he witnessed the owner of the Best shoe factory clap down $105,000 in cash and bonds for a chestnut racehorse. Earlier that same day his most promising and endearing pupil, a quick Sicilian boy who was a born scholar, told him manfully, shaking hands, that he was leaving school to work for five dollars a week in the Best shoe factory, where his parents and sisters worked, so the family could eat. He wanted to for the sake of his sisters, the boy said with a significent look -- apparently hoping John Ireland would understand what he grasped only later, that the family was trying to prevent or delay the sisters falling perforce to prostitution."
The year is 2011 -- 99%-1%! Are things so different 120 years later? Not in the nieghborhoods where I work.
Ten failing schools in Schenectady; TEN -- that is almost the total of all our schools. How does this happen? Another shooting and death of a young life. Virtual war in the streets. Hulett and Albany being a major byway for guns and drugs. Extra patrols downtown downtown, so commerce will not be affected. I have yet to see downtown benefit anybody or anything but downtown. Please fill me in if I am wrong. I challenged one angry young man on Facebook to come and visit us at QUEST. I promised a personal tour of the neighborhoods. I have not heard from him. C'mon if you make statements publicly you need the facts to back them up.
The master nodded his approval
"Then what should they do if
assaulted by six bandits?"
"How?" asked the monk
"Wipe them out with the sweep of
the sword! Then they will be harmonized."
-- Zen Monda
As father Chris said, "Righteous Anger."
Let's find a workable way for peace before it is too late.
Someone just texted me -- "I know the good die young"
"Please god let a bad boy die old"