Hidden Things


Tonight my wife and I went to see the film, Hidden Figures, the true story of three brilliant African American women and how they overcame the institutionalized racism and sexism in their workplace, which happened to be NASA in the days of the pivotal launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. It’s a wonderful and inspiring film, straight forwardly and honestly told.  And while it celebrates the triumph of the women over the intolerance of the time, there is one major problem – not with the movie, but with how white audiences will react to it.

That problem is that it is the type of story that a white man like myself can too easily feel comfortable watching.  It pushes the right buttons, the “boy, it had to be rough to be a black woman in the south in the sixties,” which, to borrow from the mathematics that is at the heart of the film, can lead us to the incorrect conclusion of “we sure have come a long ways since then.” This isn‘t the fault of the film – it tells a story that needs to be told in a way that will reach the most people – rather it’s the fault of the audience and the nature of institutionalized racism, that it’s too easy for those of us in the majority to assume we have any idea what racism is, what it must feel like, and oversimplify the incredible complexity that makes racism the tangled web that it is. Ultimately, Hiddem Figures has the unintended effect of making us more comfortable with the deeper prejudices that remain undisturbed and unchallenged deep inside.

Again, this isn’t any fault of the film – to shine a light on these brilliant and hitherto unknown women is inarguably important.   The film does have a couple of incredibly powerful moments which I won’t divulge any details about so as not to spoil anything for those yet to see it. It is a very moving and thought provoking film.

Yet something still gnaws at me. It occurs to me that though I walked out of the theatre moved and touched by the story of the women, I really didn’t learn anything new about myself in the process. This is what great art and great films do to me.  For example, after watching No Country for Old Men or There Will be Blood, I felt drained and in some unidentified way, changed. Those and other  films I’ve seen burned themselves into my psyche, became a part of my subconscious, and a part of the internal vocabulary  that I’ll use to describe the world from that point on.  That Hidden Figures doesn’t do that isn’t meant as a criticism; few films have that effect on me.  It’s an inspiring and well-made film, but don’t count on it to blaze any new ground or illuminate any new truths about racism.

I guess what it comes down to is that Hidden Figures shows us three exceptional African Americans trying to overcome obstacles and succeed in the white workplace.  And while I don’t for a moment doubt the veracity or accuracy of the film, I can’t help think that too many people who look like me will walk out of the theatre with the wrong reactions: one, that if these women can overcome such obstacles, there’s no reason others can’t roll up their sleeves and make it, too, and two, that white culture is superior to black culture and is a goal that all African Americans should aspire to, should assimilate themselves within, and be measured against.

These are both widely held tenants that are at the heart of our institutionalized racism. For example, I live in Wisconsin, and I am a Green Bay Packers fan.  About thirty five years ago, I found myself watching a packer game on television with a bunch of blue collar white guys. The packers weren’t very good at the time, and their star player was a Stanford educated African American named James Lofton.  One of the guys watching had a second home in the Green Bay area, and knew a lot of residents of the small town and how they frequently interacted with the players. “They all say what a great guy Lofton is,” he said, “and how well spoken and articulate he is.” It was funny to hear, because I’d known this guy for some time, and never once heard him use terms like “well-spoken and articulate” to describe a white man. But here he was, trying to show off how open minded he was by paying what he thought was a compliment to a black man, while instead revealing the depths of his ignorance and intolerance in intimating that most black men didn’t speak well and were inarticulate. You hear the same logic in the stories of other African-American sports stars who overcame incredible adversity growing up in the inner city to make it big in the NFL or NBA, leading to the next logical statement, “if they can overcome that, why can’t the rest of them?” forgetting what rare and exceptional physical talents anyone has to possess to make it to the level of professional sports. It’s the old, “why can’t they pull themselves up by the bootstraps and make something productive of themselves?”  (By the way – a major clue in identifying whether language is racist or not is the frequency of the words “they” and “them.”)

The second tenant, that white culture is superior to black culture, that the suburbs are superior to the inner city, is a tougher egg to crack. As one who’s lived most of his life in the quiet comfort of suburbia, I recognize that I probably believe this.  But I also recognize that I have no proof to base this belief on, because I simply don’t understand African American culture. What I have to work on is resisting the urge to assume because I understand white culture and don’t understand black culture that white culture is inherently superior.

I am a fifty eight year old white male who’s lived his entire life in the small towns and suburbs of Wisconsin. Growing up, all I knew about black culture was music, Motown and blues, and sports stars. The first books I read were about Willie Mays and Bob Gibson, both favorite baseball players of mine, and both men who’d grown up in low income, inner city neighborhoods.  Reading their biographies made me sensitive to their backgrounds, but it didn’t really give me much more than a snapshot into what African American life was really like.  And to this day, I still don’t know.  I don’t understand hip-hop or rap – I’ve tried, I know it is a legitimate art form, but I just don’t get it. It just doesn’t sound like music to the cranky old white man I’ve become. I don’t understand the clothing or the jewelry or the language. But then I realize, how could I understand these things? I’ve never spent a minute in anything except for white skin – and even if I could, that minute spent in black skin would mean nothing without possessing an ancestry of hundreds of years of being black.

When I wonder what it must be like to be black, my best-intended liberal fantasies take hold, and I try to imagine being stopped by police for no reason, or white people reacting with fear upon the site of me, or being discriminated against looking for employment or advancement or whatever.  Of course, there is no way I can know what these things feel like, but when I really think about it, I realize these are the wrong things to try to imagine, that they are clichés and stereotypes that are just as broad and racist as the myths perpetuated by white supremacists.  We need to understand that the heavy baggage of racism is buried deep within each of us, and we have to learn how to best react when this baggage surfaces, when it is exposed.  I know, for example, that the term “inner-city” immediately conjures up images of drug deals and gang shootings in my head, because that is about 90% of what I hear and read about it entails. The truth is that families and hard work are probably just as much a part of the fabric of life in the city as it is in the burbs. In fact, statistics tell me drug use is more prevalent in the burbs – yet still the images of needles in the gutters fill my imagination of inner city life.

This is where art can come in – it can shine a light on unpleasant and unexpected truths and make us react and maybe even change us.  There are two examples I can quickly think of that exposed some small but elemental truths to me – one was the Spike Lee film, Do the Right Thing, particularly the moment when Lee throws that garbage can through the plate glass window, and the second is in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck decides that he will accept going to Hell rather than turning his friend Jim in.

While Hidden Figures doesn’t fundamentally change my perception of things the way those two moments did, it’s still an excellent film that I’d strongly recommend everybody see.

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Ostriches


Today, January 27th, 2017, was International Holocaust Remembrance day. It also happened to be the day that President Trump signed an executive order shutting the door to the United States on all refugees from all countries.

Trump is an incompetent madman, and his die hard supporters are morons.  But as bad as they are, they are not the worst.  The worst are those who accept all of this madness as a new normal, who dismiss the discourse as nothing more than the usual partisan bickering.  Admittedly, often times the dialogue fails to rise above the lowest levels.  But the stakes are so much higher now. There are literally lives at stake.

Trump’s decision today violates the best interests of both American values and American interests. It violates the values of freedom and compassion that we’ve tried to live up to ever since they were written into our constitution, and it goes against our interests in that it will only give rise to the very extremism the order is intended to protect us from.  Of the thousands of people we turn away and condemn, it’s inevitable that hatred for America and Americans will rise. American people, soldiers and tourists, Republicans and Democrats, will become targets of retaliation both at home and abroad.

To those of you out there in Facebook land who are tired of all the political posts, who wish that social media would get back to just being pictures of cute little kitties and the such, to those of you who are sick of all the hate and think you’re above all of the fray, go ahead and stick your head in the sand.  You won’t be the first ones to tune out the cries of innocent people dying.

Today is a reminder that we have to remember the Holocaust because we can no longer hear the crying of six million innocent lives. But if you listen closely, you can hear the same silence that emboldened another small man who become the architect of the perversion of another great nation in 1933.  It grows louder with every order Trump signs, and the shadows of guilt spread over the souls of those who remain silent like a cancer, black and bitter and cold.

December


(I’ve been stuck on writing the final three chapters of my novel in progress. I’m hoping that last night I broke through – here’s the fist couple of paragraphs that’s got me started again)

The weeks that followed all blended together. Days bled and blurred into nights, and some nights lasted for days and others just for minutes. The daytime skies were a constant and solid cement gray, the sun lighting the landscape despite never being seen, never revealing itself.  Occasional snow flurries would float and fall and tumble from the skies but never amounted to anything, never accumulated, the ground as flat and gray and hard as the impenetrable sky.

The breeze carried with it a foreboding sense of gloom, of death.  Death was in the cold air, in the clouds of breath that’d emerge from breathing mouths and nostrils only to dissolve and fade, consumed by the unrelenting grayness. Days in bed and days outdoors, unending nights awake in the darkness, consumed by fever, joints cold and aching. There was cold death in my bones, I could feel it, I could feel the bones and dirt of an unmarked grave in the sightless dark of the unending nights. Fever dreams became indistinguishable from unreal days, visions of insulated wooden boxes placed on the lawn of a section at the bottom of the hill in Cornish Park, lit up at night by hot lights plugged into extension cords, blended with dreams of burning corn fields and the smooth  coldness of ice-covered lakes.  The mechanized hum of a diesel engine, a giant backhoe ripping into the thawed flesh of the ground, ripping and tearing it apart, a clear plastic sheet with mud and clay caked on it folded around something three dimensional, Angela and Nancy Cornish and Jim Musgrave and Mel Fleming from the television, their faces intermingling with the faces of my mom, and my dad and Frank Cornish and Sam Richter and Death himself, in his long black robe and pale skin, and the sharp unfeeling mechanical teeth of the backhoe and the thawed mud at the bottom of the hill in the grey and lifeless trees of Cornish Park.

Inside and Outside the Comfort Zone


On Monday, 12-12-2016, I tried to set aside my inherent stage fright and, as an old boss of mine frequently coached me to, step out of my “comfort zone.” It was with his voice in my ear that I took the stage at Kenosha Fusion as a storyteller in the OLIO storytelling collective.

The OLIO storytelling collective is a bunch of people who enjoy storytelling.  Some are writers, some are actors or performers, but all enjoy telling stories. The stories can be about anything, can be old folk tales re-told verbatim or with a twist, can be autobiographical or completely fictional.  The only rule is that you try to conform to a maximum length (which I exceeded in my “performance.” Oh, well.) and adhere to a “theme” if it is a themed show.  The theme for the most recent show was Christmas, so I told a much abbreviated version of “A Greaser Christmas.” (about 17% of the events and people described in my story really happened.)

The setting for the OLIO collective shows is a wonderfully intimate venue known as Kenosha Fusion. It hosts everything from musicians to comedians to puppeteers to actors to art shows to open mics to … well, just about any kind of live performance. It seats about 50 to 75 people, has an excellent sound system and a fully stocked bar. It’s a great showcase for local talent of all kinds.

 

Fusion-Paul2.jpg

I was reluctant to “perform” because of my chronic stage fright and the inconsistent quality of my voice. Thanks to my case of Parkinson’s disease, my voice is often times garbled and soft, and I tend to stutter.  But lately, for some reason, it’s been pretty good, good enough for me not to worry too much about it. As for the stage fright, I wasn’t as confident. I practiced my story for a couple of weeks before, getting it down from twenty three minutes(the unabridged version, which I posted here a couple of weeks ago) to about twelve minutes. I had to cut a lot of the best parts out, which shook my confidence a bit, but finally, in the day or two before the event, I became comfortable with what was left

The night of the event came. I was first on the bill, and I arrived at Kenosha Fusion early to stake out the performance area first. There was a podium I could hide behind (and post a one page outline of my story – it’s supposed to be memorized and not read, but I think the outline was okay, as it was just a list of the sections of my story in case I completely blanked out.) I was comfortable enough with the venue, now all I had to do was wait for my name to be called and do the damn thing.

It was cold out and a Monday night, so there wasn’t exactly a line at the door. They kept the doors open a little bit later than planned, so a few more people straggled in, making it a decent sized crowd. It helped that many of them were friends and family, but I was still a little bit nervous as my name was finally introduced and I walked up to the podium.

I was afraid my voice was too soft, and I nervously got through the first minute or so, when the moment of truth arrived – the first laugh my story was supposed to get. I delivered the “punch line” and got a good, healthy chuckle, and it was smooth sailing from that point on.  Sure, there are a few times where I stuttered and the words got garbled, but I know for a fact that was due to the Parkinson’s and not nerves, as I couldn’t have felt more comfortable.

It turned out to be a lot of fun. Whether I’ll do it again will depend largely on how my Parkinson’s develops, how it affects my voice  and balance (believe it or not, having a podium to stand behind and lean upon was big, because I knew I could grab on to something if I felt myself starting to fall! One less thing to worry about!), but for now I can confidently say that for a few moments on a cold December night, I stepped out of my comfort zone and lived to tell about it.