February 29: Miles Davis

Miles Davis taught the world about cool, but I didn’t really really get the message until, like, 1996 when I bought a copy of “Kind of Blue” and put that CD on repeat as I worked on collages and little drawings in my sketchbook at college. The album was out of time for me because I intermixed it with music it influenced years later: The Velvet Underground and Nico most notably. I read Warhol’s A: A Novel, which is basically a raw transcript of recordings of Factory hangers on made by Warhol as he followed them and acted as the glue holding them together.

Kind of Blue can bring down the temperature on just about anything. I remember reading an interview with a member of the The Roots – Tariq Trotter, Questlove? I don’t remember exactly – the interviewee said Kind of Blue sets the tone for the day, and I knew that was right.

In early high school I had listened to Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Sydney Bechet on little jazz and big band tapes I had. In this music a whole band would come together to support an individual soloist that would come up out of the group. Davis’ music was different. Every musician was doing their thing, and it came together. It wasn’t “tight” first, allowing individual expression to arise, it was the heart of musical individualism, bringing the parts together and creating a whole out of them.

As a college kid, trying to figure it all out and get some flow, that album was the perfect thing. The album is intellectual, but still accessible. When you need to slow down and get some flow, check it out. You don’t dig? Miles says “So what?”


February 28: Erica Huggins

I met lifelong poet, writer, speaker and activist at the 4th National Conference on Restorative and Community Justice in Toledo, Ohio in 2013. The conference, for me, was a contentious one, because my key message was that Restorative Justice and the Abolition movement has already failed. I was harmed by an offender in 1997 released through the intervention of an early Restorative and Community Justice group in Iowa, and my experience directly countered the narrative that courts, police and prisons harm. In fact, on the first day, I raised that concern in a striking question to keynote speaker Angela Davis, a question that was impossible to answer.

Throughout the conference I would see Erica sitting one on one with participants of the conference having quiet, very calm and thoughtful conversations. I could see she was just there with the person, not off thinking about anything else, not debating, just speaking and listening. I was there with a different purpose. I was there to argue. To challenge. To debate. I wanted my message heard, and I wanted Restorative Justice to stop immediately. I wanted a global ban.

At the same time, I went in understanding that people of color see Restorative Justice differently than me. In communities of color public votes to institute RJ are successful nearly across the globe. It has been utilized in New Zealand to combat increased native incarceration rates over those of white residents, descended of European colonizers. People of color feel they have an opportunity to express themselves, be heard, and have a fair outcome while whites see it as inconsistent, unreliable, unable to be tracked, and soft on crime.

The reality is a mix. It sometimes results in positive outcomes, but it takes significant effort to evaluate to insure that intrinsic cultural racism, patriarchy and other power structures don’t naturally fill the void. Also, more and more, simple honest storytelling is being named ‘restorative,’ even outside the context of a courtroom process.

On the last day, as people were heading out of the morning session I was sitting in a chair near the lobby. I was exhausted from being on alert the whole time. Erica came and sat with me to talk for a few minutes.

I remember her studying my eyes as we spoke. We talked about meditation and she told me she practices a non Western form of meditation. I told her I meditated for a long time, but had to stop. I was too ungrounded, too floating. I was going by but not getting by. I needed my feet on the ground. Erica told me she had friend that told her the same thing.

I told her about my experience in college working with the Black Genesis Dance Theater as their videographer and working with black graduate students on media production for their thesis projects, including one on the Middle Passage, the transport of slaves by ship from Africa to the Americas. Erica listened like she wants to know the heart of the person she’s in conversation with.

This week I watched The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and saw Erica speak the same way she listens. Her thoughts in a way bookend the film. At the opening she speaks about a kind of parable of three blind men approaching an elephant. Each experiences it differently; one like a wall, another like a spear, another like a snake. She says the Black Panthers were similar, that it was so broad that there wasn’t just one totalizing notion of the movement. At the end we see and hear her heartbreak over Huey P. Newton’s increasing violence, drug abuse and victimization of some of the longest standing Panthers.

What struck me about the openness and honesty of the Panthers that were in the film was that it recognized the real, legitimate harms that came out of the movement, and the hope too. Another Panther says, “we didn’t know we were following a Megalomaniac.”

Huggins simply states, “The Huey that he became is not the Huey I knew in the beginning.”

I believe these open, honest and unassuming statements open the door to begin looking at examples that share similarities, such as people acquitted in court of crimes of violence that are also politicized.

A comparison would be Huey P. Newton was charged and acquitted of killing a police officer, a politically charged situation. George Zimmerman was acquitted of the killing of unarmed African American teen Trayvon Martin, a politically charged situation. Zimmerman, like Newton has been accused of a pattern of physical abuse, throwing a wine bottle at a girlfriend, threatening his estranged wife and her father with a gun, punching his father in-law in the face, as well as flaunting his crime, in 2015 tweeting a crime-scene photo of Martin deceased. Prior to their charges, both Newton and Zimmerman espoused carrying firearms as a political right and a means to achieve justice. Both seem to have suffered from a grandiose sense of self following acquittal, as though they became untouchable.

These comparisons are cursory and obviously need far deeper analysis, but my point is this: I learned something from Erica Huggins about the opportunity we create to learn far more deeply about a scenario when party lines can be removed and when people can tell the whole, messy truth about a situation where injustice and injury are the primary drivers of the story. Basically, without any official “Truth and Reconciliation” commission in the US on race and the history of genocide and slavery of people of color the Panthers are jumping ahead and laying their story bare. It opens the door to much more nuanced discourse, one that allows Huggins and Newton and all the rest to be whole people, and for us to see their stories dynamically in relation to those that might initially seem rigidly aligned in contrasting and oppositional paths.

I’m deeply grateful to Erica Huggins and all the participants in the documentary Vanguard of The Revolution. The narratives are deeply heartfelt, and they reveal, not only the facts, but also the feelings of those who were there. This story is real in the best sense of the word, and it sets the bar for personally narrating personal histories that are less than perfect. My hope is that we can see some similarly honest storytelling about the injustices that led to the perceived need for a militarized wing within the civil rights movement.

Check out the trailer for Vanguard of The Revolution here.

Buy your copy of the film on Amazon.

Februrary 25: Louie Armstrong

In dance history class at The University of Iowa our teacher put great emphasis on the history and influence of African American artists on the development of American art forms.

One artist who performed in film and stage beginning in the 1920’s and performing throughout is life up until 1970. Louis Armstrong passed in 1971.

Our instructor focused on how early in his film career Armstrong was used as a cartoonish character, dressed in strange outfits and often presented as a comic aside within a film. However, she noted that the way Armstrong performed rose above the stature of the positions he was put in by the film industry. He shone through the character being portrayed, and as the film industry saw audiences drawn to Armstrong for his authenticity, his roles changed, and he was presented as a musical professional, on par with any white singer or musician.

Check out two examples from cinema history:

Sydney Bechet, Louis Armstrong and Django Reinhardt in La Route Du Bonheur 1952

Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby in High Society, 1956

There is much more to say on this topic, and having come down with the flu this week I’m resting, and will come back to develop this post further.

February 24: Alvin Ailey

This week I became very ill with the flue and fell behind in writing. In high school dance class (a physical education option at my school) our teacher was very inspired by the work of early Modern Dance choreographers, including Ailey, Martha Graham and more recent innovators like Paul Taylor and the Pilobolus.

I remember our assignment for the introduction to modern dance class was to watch dances by these choreographers and to create a dance inspired by one of them. A friend and I chose Ailey and created a dance to the song “Wade in the Water.”

I’m going to come back to these posts to add more, but for now, check out the promotional video for  Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations.”

Subscribe to The Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre website here.

February 23: Alice Walker

I read The Color Purple in high school, but all I remember of the book is a house and a river and something that starts sweet but ends ugly. Or confused. That’s all I remember. I think I saw the movie too, but all I remember is Oprah’s face and saying, “this is really good acting.” I do remember reading Walker’s essay about being blinded by her brother’s bb gun, and I remember reading Posessing the Secret of Joy, a fictional book following the life of Tashi, a character from The Color Purple.

I bought the book at the Waldenbooks at our local mall and read it in the summer after graduation before my freshman year at The University of Iowa. I remember a vivid scene of the women and elders of Tashi’s community pushing female circumcision on her and the ways the act changed her experience of her body and her internal narrative, resulting in lasting trauma. I remember a character saying to sew her vagina tight so it would be more pleasurable for her husband.

Reading the book was the first time I read a book that got that inside the inner workings of a single character. As someone who wanted to become a writer myself, and who had journaled and journaled my own internal narrative, the book was striking to me, demonstrating that personal experience, the thoughts, perceptions and feelings of a character over time could make a powerful work.

I need to reread both The Color Purple and Possessing the Secret of Joy. I don’t know why the former book wouldn’t stick with me. I know why the latter would. I suspect that the cast of characters and social dynamics of the former was too complex to process, while the personal narrative of a single character in struggle with her own experience and what she was left with would feel very real to me. In my own experience of childhood sexual abuse there was communal pressure to take harm, to keep the offender free from the courts, to see abuse as the crucible that cleansed the soul. The communal and social pressure of Possessing the Secret of Joy felt real, even though I was far from understanding why such a narrative would connect on such a visceral level. Community can be tyranny.