Saturday, February 28, 2009

Black History Month: Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni is perhaps best known for forging the use of the lowercase 'i' as a first person singular pronoun, later used by writers such as bell hooks, though really her legacy should be much more than that. Giovanni is one of the most accessible yet still palatable poets I know. Her work is rarely obscure or explicitly erudite, but her themes go beyond greeting card verse.

Giovanni's work spans over a dozen volumes of poetry, though my personal favorite is My House; her fourth book of poetry, it was published in 1972.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Black History Month: Alice Walker

Toni Morrison is arguably the most famous novelist living today, and is certainly the most famous African-American novelist. Song of Solomon is great, and Bluest Eye is a ground-breaking book as well. Sula, Tar Baby, and Beloved are good. Still, I don't think I've read much of Morrison's as good as "Everyday Use," one of Alice Walker's first short stories. I know I haven't read anything by Morrison that comes close to matching the depth and beauty of Walker's The Color Purple.

For a brief moment in the early 1980s, Alice Walker was all the rage. In the years since, however, it seems as though Morrison is getting all the attention. If you are a fan of Morrison and haven't read any Walker, run to the library and pick up The Color Purple; you'll soon be glad that you did.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Black History Month: Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke has embodied soul since his velvety voice first crooned "You Send Me" fifty years ago. When he was shot by a hotel owner six short years later, it was one of the most tragic losses in music history. Cooke had begun his career with a string of brilliant pop hits, many of which have become standards -- "Cupid," "Wonderful World," "Chain Gang," "Twistin' the Night Away," "Shake!" and "Everybody Loves to Cha-Cha-Cha" to name a few. His lesser hits like "Soothe Me" and "Rome Wasn't Built In A Day" were also excellent. Night Beat was an instantly classic album, and certainly one of the first great albums.

The real tragedy of Cooke's loss, though, is that he was just beginning to make his real contribution. Cooke's last single before he was murdered was "A Change Is Gonna-Come." Cooke was one of the first soul singers to write his own material, and "Change" was one of the first soul songs to be socially conscious and to take a political stand in its lyrics. It became an anthem of the civil rights movement and gave Cooke a legacy which has lasted ever since.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Black History Month: Cornel West

Cornel West is a fantastic individual. Politically, I've been aligned with him always. In 2000, he supported Bill Bradley in the Democratic primaries, and Ralph Nader in the general election. In 2008 he supported Barack Obama.

West identifies himself as a "non-Marxist socialist," because while he follows socialism, he does not believe religion to be an opiate of the masses. To be fair to Marx, he sees certain religious practices as an opiate, but some of his writings suggest that he doesn't see religion itself as being such. Still, given the popular interpretation of Marx as such, West is honorable in his denial of the term Marxist. He is a strong leader within the Baptist church and a professor of religious studies at Princeton.

Happy Birthday, George Harrison!

Today George Harrison would have been 66 years old were he still alive.

Objectively, I go back and forth. Subjectively, he's my favorite Beatle.

If you have the chance, spin one of his stellar albums today. If I had to cherry-pick my favorites, I'd suggest All Things Must Pass, 33 1/3 and Brainwashed.

George's guitar playing is immediately recognizable. It has a specific feeling that it brings to every song it is on, and George's heart makes his solo work all the more endearing. His work with the Traveling Wilburys is just as good.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Black History Month: Jean Toomer

Jean Toomer is known for the pseudo-novel Cane. Cane is a multi-genre work, blending short pieces of fiction with bits of poetry. Some characters are recurring, though overall the thematics are the most recurring aspects of the novel, and they mostly deal with the treatment of blacks in the South early in the twentieth century. This has allowed Cane to be broken up and anthologized, meaning that parts of it are widely read and well-known. The poems are some of the most well-known selections.

Its very title has an interesting duality, suggesting both the field labor of sugar cane, and, through homonymical suggestion, the mark of Cain, which had been falsely suggested was the cause for race.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Black History Month: Zora Neale Hurston

Twenty years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone who knew who Zora Neale Hurston was. Today her legacy is vibrantly alive, at least in university English departments. Contemporary writers like Toni Morrison would not be able to do what they do without Hurston first laying the ground work.

Hurston's reputation mainly lies on her brilliant novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937. She is also revered for her short fiction, such as "Gilded Six-Bits." Equally compelling is Hurston's work as a social anthopologist. Mules and Men is her most renowned book in this genre and remains a fascinating read.

Although I haven't read it, Hurston did write a play with Langston Hughes, posthumously published by Henry Louis Gates in 1991 and titled Mule Bone. Judging by her other work, it is probably worth checking out.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Black History Month: James Baldwin

James Baldwin's masterstroke is Go Tell It On the Mountain, the tale of a young effeminate boy growing up in a strongly evangelical Baptist church. In many ways, it is the tale of Baldwin's own life, as least as much as "Sonny's Blues," Baldwin's much anthologized short story about a jazz musician dealing with the throes of heroin addiction. Later novels such as Another Country explored his sexuality more thoroughly than Go Tell It.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Black History Month: Thylias Moss

Author of eight volumes of poetry, Thylias Moss is a writer who continually challenges the reader to have dynamic thoughts -- to be able to see situations from multiple angles simultaneously; more than negative capability; the holding of three or more -- especially in regards to race relations.

Her poems include "Lunchcounter Freedom," about the 60's lunch-counter sit-ins and "Interpretation of a Poem by Frost" where she reimagines "Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening" through the eyes of a black girl who knows she's stopping in Jim Crow's woods; though there is no indication his house is in the village.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Black History Month: Rita Dove

Rita Dove is one of our finest poets. She has been named Poet Laureate twice; once in 1993, and then again in 1999. Her Pulitzer-winning collection Thomas and Beulah is a collection of poems that create a chronological narrative. It serves as a biography of Dove's maternal grandparents, who would have had no voice without her.

Many of her poems not in that collection are equally compelling. "Reading Mickey In the Night Kitchen for the Third Time Before Bed" captures the moment where her daughter, at a very young age, learns the difference between girls and boys, using Maurice Sendak's book as a starting off point. Mickey In the Night Kitchen has often been banned because Mickey is drawn in the nude, but Dove shows how this can be a positive moment between mother and child in her beautiful poem.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Black History Month: Speech

Speech was the leader of the rap group Arrested Development. Their album 3 Years, 5 Months and 7 Days In the Life Of... revolutionized the game. In many ways, it was as political and theoretical as the stuff Public Enemy was doing, and Speech was Arrested Development's Chuck D.

What made Arrested Development different from Public Enemy though is that they were much more accessible. Public Enemy was aggressive and had heavy beats. Arrested Development was record scratching over world beat, which lyrics that were promoting peace. Their three hit singles -- "Peace Everyday," "Mr. Wendal," and "Tennessee" -- do show the ugly side of life, but then suggest positive methods for change. By carefully choosing how the audience saw them, and by choosing an almost cuddly image that would be accepted by almost anyone, Arrested Development was able to attain a large following quickly, even though many of its fans turned out to be too fickle to buy the follow up (I admit, I don't have their follow-up, either).

One of their best songs is "Fishin' 4 Religion," a song which critiques churches that don't take a pro-active approach to problem solving, but call instead for finding other ways to work within the church, to fish for religion, rather than calling to abandon it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Black History Month: Richard Wright

His most famous works are his 1945 memoir Black Boy and 1940 novel Native Son.

Black Boy recalls Wright's youth growing up impoverished in the South. His confusion with life is shown when he kills a cat after his dad suggests someone kill the cat as a joke.

Native Son was written around the time of Wright's flirtation with communism, and it shows. Bigger is a poor black hired as a chauffer for a rich, white family. After his first day on the job, Bigger accidentally kills the family's young, flagrant teenage daughter. Bigger believes (probably correctly) that he will be mistaken as a murder, and so he attempts to evade the police at all costs, leading him down a trail where he does become a real killer, actually perpetrating a brutal murder. Eventually, he is caught and Jan, the young communist who was dating the rich girl, does what he can to help him and provides him with a lawyer. Unfortunately, society has doomed Bigger from the start.

For something by Wright a little further from the mainstream of those two books, his first book, Uncle Tom's Children, is a strong collection of short stories.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Black History Month: James Brown

Forget for a second that James Brown more-or-less single-handedly (ok, Bootsy, Maceo, Catfish, Fred Wesley, etc. deserve some credit too) created the genres of r&b, soul, funk and rap, and forget that James had more chart hits than anybody other than Elvis Presley (that's 129 chart hits for James for those of you keeping score at home).

I remember when James died. I remember sitting in front of the TV and crying on Christmas day. Looking back, it almost seems a fitting tribute for James to have died on a day he contributed so much to. Among James' best tracks were those he recorded for Christmas, both as lp tracks and as holiday-only singles. "Santa Claus, Go Straight To the Ghetto" is probably his most famous Christmas track, but he gets into some hard funk on "Hey America (It's Christmas Time)" and "Soulful Christmastree." Even "Go Power at Christmas Time" is pretty funky. Brown gets political on "Let's Make Christmas Mean Something this Year." He even gets soulful on Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song." Criminally out of print, Santa's Got A Brand New Bag was a Christmas best of that did justice to the breadth of Brown's Christmas releases. If you can find a copy, covet it.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Black History Month: Susan Lori Parks

The Venus Hottentot was a slave afflicted with elephantitis of the labia. Because of her physical abnormalities, and because she lacked the agency to shield herself from ridicule, she was paraded around the country as though she were nothing but a sideshow freak. Susan Lori Park's masterful play Venus is an emotionally packed telling of her story.

After the Venus Hottentot's death, her labia were preserved in fermaldehyde. Before the curtains open and during intermission, the tension is heightened as actors reinact the measuring of her vulva as scientists took it from glass jars and stretched it, just to make sure that even in death she could not retain her dignity.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Black History Month: Sterling Brown

As a professor at Howard University, Sterling Brown's was a professor who specialized in African-American folklore; it shows in his poetry. Much of Sterling Brown's poetry loosely falls into the category of folk ballad, or explores other forms commonly associated with folk culture. More tellingly, folk culture comes to life in his writing. In "Odyssey of Big Boy," Big Boy dreams of being just like Casey Jones, Stackalee, and John Henry. Brown's deep knowledge of folk culture allows him to write aboit it with fluidity rather than stagnation.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Black History Month: Grandmaster Flash

Grandmaster Flash is responsible with taking rap to the next level. At first, rap was a street game of rhyming. With Sugarhill Gang's release of "Rapper's Delight," the second rap song released and the first to hit the charts, rap became a commercial prospect. The next landmark was Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks," the first rap record to go gold. Shortly thereafter, however, commercial rap started to become a parody of itself, with songs like the Afternoon Delights' "General Hospi-tale," a rap song narrating the 1981 season of General Hospital, being the only rap songs to climb the charts. "The Message" changed all that in 1982. It was the first rap song to be politicial. Lyrically, it was in many ways a recasting of Stevie Wonder's "Livin' For the City," but it was the first time lyrics with such considerations were rapped. Also, it was a bit darker. "The Message" ends with a prisoner's suicide.

The forgotten gem of Grandmaster Flash's catalog, however, may be a song he recorded in early 1984 with Melle Mel. "Jesse" was a song championing Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential bid. Indeed, it may be the only rap song urging listeners to join the Rainbow Coalition. It sounds rather tame and dated by today's standards, both musically and politically, but remains at worst an interesting curio and at best a benchmark, laying the foundation for things like's "Yes We Can." The best thing about the song, of course, is that it signifies on Ronald Reagan, perhaps the worst president in American history, by looking at how he underestimated Jesse Jackson's leadership potential before he went to Syria.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Black History Month: Arna Bontemps

Arna Bontemps was a noted writer. Good friends with Langston Hughes, a sometimes collaborator, Bontemps was nearly as prolific. He published novels, plays, poetry, various genres of non-fiction and children's books. He collaborated with Countee Cullen and W. C. Handy in addition to Hughes.

While an important writer, Bontemps best work may have been as a librarian. Bontemps spent over twenty years as the librarian at Fisk University, the traditionally black college which holds W.E.B. DuBois, Nikki Giovanni and others among its alumni. While librarian, Bontemps made it a top priority to focus on collecting words about African-American culture and works by African-American authors. What he did, advertantly or inadvertantly, was creat the canon for what would become African-American studies, and especially African-American Literature as a field. His library brought respect to a burgeoning field and pointed the way for further study.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Black History Month: Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs, writing under the name Linda Brent, was an escaped slave who went on to write what may be the most affecting slave narrative in existence.

The most famous slave narrative is Frederick Douglass's autobiography, notable for exemplifying the first instance of signifying in American literature as he tricks white boys into teaching him the alphabet and how to spell by telling them they are too dumb to spell, causing them to prove that they can in order to save face. By watching them write, he studied what they did, even if it meant them beating him up afterwards for daring to call them stupid.

Jacobs' narrative is different, because being a woman she has a completely different set of concerns. Furthermore, she is a mulatto woman; likely an octaroon, a term for a woman who was 7/8s white and 1/8 black. She had gotten that way through a series of slave women being raped by white masters, and when her white master saw her he no longer thought of how she came to be in his posession. Jacobs herself, from her tweens onward, was constantly fighting off the affections of powerful white men. Constantly harassed, the book is a narrative of her attempts to evade sexual abuse at the hands of white men and physical abuse at the hands of their jealous wives. It may not be the most famous slave narrative, but perhaps it should be. It is the most powerful, shocking, and will shake you to your core.

Happy Birthday, Abe

Today is the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, so as you go through your day, do your part to be thankful for his legacy. It is still relevant today.

In rememberance, some Whitman:

from "When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom'd"

O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be, for the grave of him I love?
Sea-winds, blown from east and west,
Blown from the eastern sea, and blown from the western sea, till there on the prairies meeting:
These, and with these, and the breath of my chant,
I perfume the grave of him I love.

For those interested, find and read the rest, and then check out "O Captain! My Captain!" as well.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Black History Month: Claude McKay

During the bombing of London during the second world war, Winston Churchill read his nation a sonnet, written in the Queen's English, titled "If We Must Die." The sonnet urged the people of Britain to stand strong against Germany, and to courageously fight back.

"If We Must Die" was not written about the bombing of London. It was written by Claude McKay, a socialist Jamaican writer who had left Jamaica for the United States and was living in New York when he wrote the poem about a series of race riots, urging blacks to fight back against their white oppressors.

When McKay had started out, his first two books -- one published in Jamaica and the other in England -- were poems written in Jamaican dialect. It seemed almost as if McKay were capitalizing on the exotic nature of how lower-class Jamaicans spoke. Even so, many of these poems followed the established European form of the ballad. After moving away from Jamaica and studying agriculture at Kansas State University, McKay became interested in W.E.B. DuBois, and to do his part of becoming part of the talented tenth, McKay took to mastering the traditional forms of European poetry. McKay became a master of the sonnet, and wrote in the form so skillfully that he fooled Churchill who read him over the airwaves as though he were an old master who had custom written the poem as a nationalistic cry of solidarity.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Black History Month: Prince

Prince gets a lot of play on here already, so I should probably be promoting someone else, but I still don't think Prince gets the respect he deserves (nor probably as much disrespect as he deserves when he releases a single as silly as "Guitar," the lead single from Planet Earth). That being said, Prince is an amazing musician, but people often write him off before giving him a fair listen, scared of his androgyny and not wanting to admit that his music can speak for them too. Even top critics are divisive when it comes to Prince's work.

The fact is the man plays 46 instruments, has an 11-octave range (he's not always in falsetto) and, fan-club only internet releases included, may be the most prolific musician around. Supposedly, he has four -- yes, four -- full length albums scheduled for release this year. Unfortunately, none of them will be the original version of Crystal Ball, the three disc concept album Prince trimmed down to the two-disc Sign O' the Times, his best album.

Stylistically, Prince is all over the musical map. "Starfish and Coffee" could have been an outtake from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. "Sometimes It Snows In April" is a piano ballad up with Joni Mitchell's work. "Dear Mr. Man" is a James Brown-like feast of bass, horns and political commentary. "The Beautiful Ones" one-ups Jim Steinman's epic ballads, and in half the time. "Power Fantastic" could be some avant-garde classical composition. Then Prince has his own style: a blend of George-Harrison riffs, scintillating drum tracks, and lyrics that vascillate between engaging the wider world and describing dirty bedroom exploits. What makes all the music his, though, is that his voice allows him to sound vulnerable, while still seething with contempt. You can hear the look he gives in the picture above.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Black History Month: Don L. Lee

Don L. Lee, also known as Haki R. Madhubuti, is the poet that Leroi Jones, also known as Amiri Baraka, wishes he could be.

Lee's writing is amazingly powerful, but unfortunately he hasn't received nearly as much credit as Baraka, possibly because he doesn't create media conundrums just to get free publicity, even if Baraka's is for his issues as well as his work. Lee, who got his MFA from Iowa's writing workshop, was one of the strongest black poets of the 60s and 70s -- I would say he was perhaps the strongest black male poet of the period.

The poems of his I know best are those collected in two anthologies connected to Gwendolyn Brooks: Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology, edited by Brooks in 1971, and The Poetry of Black America, edited by Arnold Adoff and with an introduction by Gwendolyn Brooks from 1973. Both books may seem a bit dated now, but they are both filled with fantastically powerful works, and the poems of Lee are the highlights of both. Perhaps, then, it shouldn't come as too much of a shock that he founded the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature.

Here's just a little taste of Lee's talent. One of my favorite poems of his is called "But He Was Cool," a satiric portrait of a clueless hipster. All you need to know is right there in the poem's subtitled: "or: he even stopped for green lights." Nothing cooler than that.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Black History Month: Leadbelly

If for nothing else, Huddie Ledbetter should be recognized for bringing the 12-string guitar to prominence. He was so skilled with the instrument that he was able to play his way out of prison twice. Not bad for a Southern black who had been imprisoned first for killing a black man and then for stabbing a white man. Signature songs include "Goodnight Irene," "Rock Island Line," and "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" -- a powerful ballad that will stop you in your tracks. A personal favorite of mine is his recording of the gospel tune "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen."

It has been suggested in some circles, apocryphal or not, that Leadbelly may have been involved in Kurt Cobain's suicide. As the story goes, after Nirvana recorded "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" on MTV Unplugged, Leadbelly's family offered to sell Leadbelly's guitar to Cobain. With his contract up for renewal, Cobain supposedly asked his record label to buy him the guitar as a signing bonus. When they refused, Cobain realized that the corporate suits in charge of the musical industry, like much of the public, didn't give a shit about the artistry of authentic, gutteral expression, and that this realization is what drove him to suicide. If the story is true, its a damn shame that they didn't realize the beauty of Leadbelly's Ovation.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Black History Month: Gwendolyn Brooks

It seems as though almost everyone knows "We Real Cool," Brooks' hip, slangy poem about the fate of ghetto youth who go down the path that leads to the gang-banger lifestyle. Each line ends with "we," except for the last one. The young boys cease to be in that last line: "Die soon." Though not quite as popular, many are also familiar with "The Bean Eaters" and "kitchenette building." Even "The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till" is semi-widely read. One of Brooks poems that deserves more acclaim, though, is "The Lovers of the Poor," possibly because it is a bit lengthier than most poetry readers' attention spans can handle. There is a lot to unpack in it.

The poem is a group portrait and its thesis, if poems can be said to have theses, is simply this: When the rich can't help the poor without being condescending, whether they are conscious of it or not, their cultural slights and accidental insults sting enough to set those they intend to help back further than they were before the rich stepped in in the first place. It is among the most powerful portraits of its kind.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Black History Month: Afroman

Keep laughing, but Afroman's the bomb -- bump that. Okay, so "Because I Got High" certainly wasn't genius, but the album that accompanied it -- a compilation drawn from a number of independent albums -- revealed wit, intelligence and sensitivity. Although several strong songs appear on the album, the gem is undoubtedly "Crazy Rap." In the tradition of Slick Rick, Afroman uses this song to detail his sexual exploits with a long list of women. More interestingly, though, Afroman's choice of women aren't all realistic. Consider this verse:

I met Colonel Sander's wife in the state of Kentucky.
She said, I'll fry some chicken if you just f*ck me.
I came in her mouth; it was a crisis.
I gave her my secret blend of herbs and spices.

Obviously, if Colonel Sander's wife if still alive, she would probably be too old and nasty for Afroman to really get with her. More likely, this is a case where sex is totally about power, and Afroman is using this song, and this verse especially, as a metaphor for blacks taking power back. Colonel Sanders is the very image of a slave-running plantation owner. It is just as likely that the blend of herbs and spices was stolen from a slave who worked in the kitchen as it is that Sanders came up with it himself. Fried chicken is no doubt a Southern food, but that doesn't mean Sanders was cooking it. Instead, he has made billions of dollars without ever publicly -- at least as far as I know -- acknowledging the debt he owes to Black America. Afroman is making a little capital off of his slogans himself, stealing some of the power back by his appropriation of "herbs and spices." That makes this verse one of the most brilliant quatrains in all of rap.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Black History Month: Charles Chesnutt

Charles Waddell Chesnutt remains one of the great, underappreciated masters of the short story in American literature. He could wipe the floor with O. Henry and Faulkner, but is sadly too often overlooked, though recent years have seen more light shown on his brillaint body of work.

Of the stories Chesnutt wrote, my favorite remains "The Goophered Grapevine." The tale uses many techiques such as the frame story, and ultimately, at the end of it, it is realized the narrator, Uncle Julius, is being a bit of a trickster. The story is about a haunted grapevine. The narrator tells it to keep others away, though actually he is using the grapes to make his own wine. The story he tells is of a slave, Henry, who uses the grapes to stay young after they get a spell put on them by a voodoo priestess. His master sells him young, and then at the end of the grape season, buys him on the cheap when he goes back to his original age. The owner focuses so much attention on the racket he has going with Henry, he forgets to tend to the grapes and Henry dies when they do. The story within the story throws an interesting light on market capitalism, while the frame story is a bit of trickster genius.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Black History Month: W. E. B. DuBois

W. E. B. DuBois was the first African American to graduated from Harvard, and as such education was a matter he took very seriously. Throughout his career, he had the late 19th/early 20th century equivalent of beef with Booker T. Washington. Booker believed that blacks should go to trade school and take jobs where they would always be subservient to whites and thus easy to control. Contrarily, DuBois believed in what he called the Talented Tenth. Essentially, DuBois felt that if the ten percent of African Americans with the most talent and potential worked as hard as they could and went as far as they could in life, they would pull the rest of the race up with them. They would be able to own their own businesses and have MBAs and PhDs rather than just having gone to trade school. I think DuBois had the right idea.

Although he wrote many important books during a career as one of the world's most pre-eminent sociologists, W. E. B. DuBois reputation still rests upon The Souls of Black Folk, the book in which he articulated his theory of double consciousness. The book, a gorgeous blend of memoir, anthopology and theory, suggests that for Black Americans there are two consciousnesses. They are always conscious of themselves as individuals, and also conscious of the ways in which some whites will view them, and thus in life they have to always figure out a way to manuever among these consciousnesses. DuBois' hoped for a future where the two selves would be fused into a better self, and I hope he'd agree that in the 105 years that have passed since the publication of Souls we are quite a bit closer to being there. But I don't think we are yet.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Black History Month: Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is a noted literary scholar whose lasting impact will likely lie in a brilliant book called The Signifying Monkey. The Signifying Monkey is a Yoruban folk legend, popularized in America by toasting (toasting being a method of rhymed story-telling that predates rap) stand-up comics such as Rudy Ray Moore (Dolemite!) about a monkey being hunted by both an elephant and a lion. The monkey outsmarts them both by engaging in a verbal game tells signifying. He tricks them into fighting one another, and therefore is able to not only survive, but move up on the totem pole as his predators destroy each other, leaving room for him to move up.

The story is metaphoric. If the monkey represents the African-American, then through language and literacy, they are able to keep those above them busy and thus unobtrusively move up. Signifying is broader than that, though, encompassing a wide range of verbal strategies that allow someone lacking power to momentarily gain it, especially by twisting language which was originally that of the oppressor.

The signifying monkey becomes a motif that has moved throughout African-American history, either consciously or unconsciously, and is a strategy that can be seen at work in the writing of almost every major African-American literary figure, as well as many rap artists. Henry Louis Gates is responsible for pointing the way to a broader understanding of how it is used.

Buddy Holly

Buddy is an icon and a legend, and today is the 50th anniversary of that day when at 22 he perished in a tragic plane crash. Every note he laid down was magical in some way. Still, there was something about him I always wondered about, and that is a few lines in "Not Fade Away." I don't mean to disrespect Buddy, as his musical legacy if amazing, but I'm not sure about his views on women. Case in point:

My love's bigger than a Cadillac.
I try to show you but you keep drivin' me back.
My love for you has got to be real
so I'm going to show you just how I feel.

Sounds like rape to me. Maybe there was something to all that talk about how rock was evil back in the fifties.... Personally, I can't help but think of that scene in The Buddy Holly Story where Jake Busey tries to rip off his girlfriend's bra at the start of the movie. I think, though, that after he found love with Maria Elena Santiago and matured a bit, he too probably would have found the verse in question a tad repulsive. I like to think so.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Black History Month: Aaron McGruder

Aaron McGruder skyrocketed to fame a few years back then the Boondocks became a TV show. I have still not seen it, but have been continually amazed the the Boondocks comic strip. McGruder's anthologies of the strip, most notably Right To Be Hostile, feature some of the most cutting social commentary in recent memory. In a self-imposed commentary on how left-wing media was more or less censored in the days directly following 9/11, McGruder replaced the Boondocks characters with a flag and ribbon, who later showed up in a dark basement after the patriotic furor died down.

McGruder has also been remarkably vocal about his views outside of the strip. He was a proud supporter of Ralph Nader in 2000, supporting him even after the Florida recounts. He later claims to have called Condoleeza Rice a mass murderer to her face.

In addition to Boondocks, McGruder also wrote a graphic novel titled Birth of a Nation. I have not read it, but it obviously alludes to D.W. Griffith's silent history of the Ku Klux Klan in its title and, knowing McGruder, the work inside probably interesting comments on the film as well.

McGruder is still an up-and-coming young star, and it will be interesting to see what he does. It may turn out that McGruder could fill the void Spike Lee has left as he has turned to more personal projects in the last few years and away from film which make direct social commentary. I feel Lee's films are now more mature and nuanced, but someone has to keep hollywood in check with some hard-hitting criticism.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Black History Month: Ntozake Shange

It is that time of year again: February. This year, in honor of the contributions of Black Americans, I plan to write a portrait of what I feel is an underappreciated contributor to American culture. That means that George Washington Carver and Martin Luther King, Jr. probably won't get profiled. Benjamin Banneker probably won't show up here either. But that also means you might want to read extra close because you mind find out about something that you didn't even know existed.

Writing this, I realize that not everything will make sense until the project is complete. If you don't know who Dunbar is, keep reading and in a few days you will find out.

Ntozake Shange is primarily a playwright, most famous for for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. She has also written several novels, volumes and poetry, and books of creative non-fiction. If I Can Cook / You Know God Can is a tremendous collection of essays. On the surface, it is about food and eating, but it seamlessly moves between genres, encompassing history, cultural anthropology, theology and memoir within its pages.

My favorite work of Shange's is a play called Spell #7. The play is about a black theatre troupe who is only able to find work by performing in black face. The play opens with the actors taking their bows at the end of a performance. The rest of the play takes place backstage in the dressing room. As layers of blackface come off, layers of self-loathing are exposed. The actors signify on each other in a variety of ways, and the play becomes about how the black community deals with having to constantly live behind Dunbar's mask and having to play up to the expected and stereotyped front expected by white culture in order to be accepted, and the psychological reprecussions of such a mask. It is a powerful piece of work.