Friday, March 22, 2013

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, Smoking Sambo "A Wash in a Cultural Deluge"

  I attended my first Chicago art show in the 1990's, in a walk up loft. One artist, a short perky white women with spiky blond hair, a midwestern farmer's build, in overalls, approached me. Clearly I was spell-bound by one of her pieces, so she proudly and cagily introduced herself. The day was hot and I'm sure she could sniff the scent of a sale. It was a 1920's card board "Smoking Sambo" sign, she matted in a black frame. Classic Old Black Sambo dressed up to sell cigarettes, still rooted in racism and shame, which I thought was her idea behind it.

When I said something about, being deeply moved, she eyed me strangely throwing me off balance. This occurred long ago, but the conversation came down to her having no knowledge of Black minstrel entertainment and commercialism in America.  Smoking Sambo was just something  "cool" she found in her great aunt's Alabama home.  When I gave context she seemed put off, like I'd tainted a good memory.  In turn, I was floored that she'd completely white washed the representation of great suffering and oppression, replacing it with her sanitized version.

Out of both feelings, a sale was made. 

I "liberated" "Sambo" for 100 dollars, more than I'd ever spent on one item. I can still feel the tension, confusing, and bad feelings, -that continue to divide Black and white America-, as she carefully wrapped it and thanked me, clearly happy for the sale, yet confused and disturbed that I wanted it. As the other ship passing in the night, I want it, not in my home, but buried in sacred ground, after a Mambo or Bokor, performed rites of cleansing, removing evilness that created it

 and bad spirits in which it lived . Instead, I buried it in a closet. 

Three years ago a friend from New York sent me a book about an artist named Betye Saar entitled "Extending The Frozen Moment" 

I'm still mesmerized by her work including her a series, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. 

In America the "formalities" of historical Black oppression are sometimes taught. Yet the deep psychological methods furthering white supremacy, get ignored, continuing to create, control, promulgate, and perpetuate, the negative cultural narratives of Black people. I'm always amazed at the amount of white women today, who still love Gone with The Wind, which perpetuates the happy, docile, and dumb slave myth, at the foundation of arguments still made, that slavery wasn't always a bad experience for Black people. 

The terms "aunt" "auntie" and "uncle"  were pejorative familial terms to address older Blacks by whites. Aunt Jemima, created in 1899 , off the violent reversal of the progressive Reconstruction Era, represented the return of the "happy Black slave" who gladly put the white master and his family, first.  

Betye Saar "liberates" Aunt Jemima, by making her bigger and "Blacker" ( considered negative), while replacing the white baby with a modern handgun and rifle.  Another image is  "Aunt Jemima" on a washboard holding a rifle. The "boxing glove" speaks for itself.

Smoking Joe now hangs at the end of my hallway. Now, as an amateur collector, of what I call "Black Holocaust Remembrance Art, I learned mine is an original.

Disturbingly, a small but growing population of white America, Europe and larger in Asia are

now "into" this art, including China which now mass producers fakes sold on eBay. The fake Smoking Joe  sells for up to 100 dollars.  It's impossible to tell new from old card board on eBay. Also on the back of the authentic ones are instructions in setting up the cigarette in the figure's mouth. The name of the company "United" is also printed.

I also collect old "race" post cards. It's amazing that images so hateful were purchased for messages so trite, which is what Hannah Arendt meant in "Banality of Evil". It's easy to find these originals on eBay although they're getting more expensive. Some I purchased for two dollars years ago now go for 30 dollars like the Black man (above) being eaten by the Alligator.  Alligators feasting on Black children are also popular as well as cartoonish images of wanton and highly sexualized Black women barely dressed. For over 200 years these cards traveled across American, celebrating holidays and birthday, etc, viewed by those who handled them along the way to their final destination for the intended audience, as part of the conditioning of white supremacy. Is it any wonder why American race relations are so toxic? 

These "Zulu-Lulu" drink sticks were a gift. Dating back to the 1950's "Mad 'white' Men" Era, representing among other ideals that Black female children " Nifty at 15" can be blatantly exploited for sexually for commercial gain.

Nola's French Market is where "all Louisiana", hot sauce , elaborate Mardi Gras beads, hunting knives, cook books, art, seasonings, plants, masks, cold beer, clothes, bags of ready to eat spicy craw fish, toys,  alligator friend on a stick, belt buckles, etc, etc, are sold. 

Pre Katrina, at the market's end, out of the shade, working poor vendors, mostly Black and African, participated for free on a first come basis, peddling all manner of Louisianan flotsam and jetsam. On my first trip I happened on (a sign labeled " Rich Caju-Creole State Sale") of boxes and crates that looked straight from NOLA's version of Fat Albert's Junk Yard. Sleeping in its mist, under a huge picnic table umbrella was a mid 60ish emaciated cadaverous looking white male in a dirty and tattered white suit. My then girl friend who use to live in NOLA, quickly tried to pull me away. There is a
strange kinetic energy between myself  and the strangest NOLA denizens, which meant numerous conversations and stories where ever I go.  Quickly he opened one eye and the rest was history. He had a thick Creole /Cajun Southern accent and claimed these remnants were the last of his families's estate. He said he moved out of their planation estate ( showing pictures of a large house half consumed between mold and swamp) and now lived in an SRO in Baton Rouge, an admitted chronic alcoholic on public aide.

 Over the next two hours, he described his mothers"famous" restaurant, that never obeyed prohibition, in a original creole colony, that soon thrived as a trading village along the Atchafalaya swamp, because of his father, the mayor, who died of a heart attack while eating at the restaurant.  His mother married the next mayor a Cajun who in one night gambled away the restaurant, and the village's finances the next, then disappeared forever into the swamp.  He cried when describing the ruined village with only 300 people left. I purchased beer and crawfish which we ate in three lawn chairs for sale. 
When my girl friend and I, went to get more beer and crawfish, she refused to go back, saying if she had to watch him eat any more, she'd throw up and the reason his skin and eyes where so yellow and runny with thick liquidness was because of jaundice. She told me to meet her in half hour at the bar across the street. I used the heat and humidity to explain her absence, but I think he knew. I went thought boxes of mostly junk, purchasing for twenty dollars (because my generosity with the food and beer) two cast iron skillets and the cast iron signs below from his mother's restaurant. I scrubbed away most of the rust and touched them up with white paint.  

What brought all this to mind, was an article in last Sunday's New York Times entitled  "A Wash in a Cultural Deluge, written by Roberta Smith. What really caught my attention was the first photo below of Black Americana Minstrel Art and the artist's Chinese name, Charles Wong. 

I was suspicious when I saw a Guggenheim award named  "The Hugo Boss Prize"  that actually went to Danh Vo, born in Vietnam and reared in Denmark, who "conceived" and "orchestrated"  Charles Wong's art for the exhibit.  The article stated that the award's overlap "with Asia Week is fortuitous".  Which I guess is why the museums associate curator, Katherine Brinson, who seems to have preformed the same job as Vo, only got a mention. But Smith meritoriously,writes  (by stringing together her own collection of unneeded fifty cent words) that presenting other people's art, as art, is now nouveau.

Wong, described in the article as "a denizen of the East Village during its art heyday of the 1980s and early ’90s", seems interesting enough, as other immigrant artists who adjust well to America.

Unfortunately, the article doesn't get into his life, tragically shortened by AIDS, that forced
 his return to  San Francisco to spend his last days with his parents. Equally notable is that Wong was primarily a painter, but the Guggenheim seems only concerned with his collection of ethnic figures, "Less well known is the fact that he seems to have been an obsessive accumulator, with an omnivorous, erudite eye; broad tastes; and a sharp sense of an object’s social and cultural connotations". 

But what does this mean? Because by themselves these figures are politically meaningless at best. The writer states that "One of the show’s many subtexts is the frequency of racial stereotypes — in this case African-American and Chinese — in popular culture. It also drives home a more diffuse point: Just about any small, mass-produced, glazed-ceramic animal or human is to some extent demeaning." 

This seems far more speculative platitudes, to head off any possible criticism of racial insensitivity about presenting the collection at the Guggenheim. And  as most of these figures are produced in China as Americana kitsch, I'd say Wong collected these figurines, not to liberate or present them as a cultural critique, but as a Chinese immigrant who adopted the playfully non political gay thespian white male kitsch culture that mirrored the non political considerations of the women who sold me Smoking Joe. Especially given, both 

the sheer amount and diversity of "stuff" collected( which negates any political  purpose or critique) and that as the article states, Wong was "aided and abetted" in a "lifelong buying spree by his mother" Florence Wong Fie. "Their acquisitions included everything from ancient jade or ivory archer rings to dusty campaign buttons; from Disney characters in various materials and scales to original cartoons by Clay Wilson and Victor Moscoso; from sheets of Chinese, Arabic and Tibetan calligraphy to numerous printed cards, booklets and books. There is a circular feng shui compass as well as Wong’s drawing of one; an ordinary lamp with a ceramic Chinese sage for a base that appears in a very early painting of Wong’s that is also on view; and a white-glazed porcelain figure of a many-armed Indian Hindu goddess, a Mother’s Day gift to Mrs. Wong Fie, still in its box, which her son inscribed to “A little lady that always has her hands full.”" 

Most certainly Asians, especially the Japanese during WWII transcended to a level where they became targets of commercial scorn, especially with Cartoons. 

However, it never approached the level or expanse of the "Black minstrel", existing on a level of "American stereo type hazing initiations" that all ethnic groups experienced as the price for their choice of leaving their motherland for American opportunity.  

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

6 Month Old Jonylah Watkins, Victim No 66. Don't Hate the Hustle, Hate the Game. More Inner City Blues.

"I was trying to help, I was trying to help, I was trying to help her" 

said Jonathan Watkins, from Northwestern Hospital, after being shot once in his hind section and grazed in the face last Monday on the 6500 block of  S. Maryland, while changing his six month old daughter Jonylah's diaper, who would later slip away from the five bullets, shot into her small body.

I'm not going to get into how concerned I am about the violence that will be unleashed this summer.

At this moment, I'm focused merely on the hopeless "lifelessness" of Black men existing at the center of an immense and growing vortex of violence-that is often tragicomically cartoonish, pain, suffering, and death, now easily accessible to the world via social media sites.  Actually, without Facebook, some of the murders they either commit or that will claim them- depending on the day an hour- wouldn't be solved, due to the deeply intrenched "no snitching" code of both fear and honor.

After these shooting, adults closest to the victims might cry for the cameras, yet proffer little to no evidence to solve the shootings. In their world, the lines of shooter and victim- generally all bound together by a few blocks- are easily crossed and confused, especially because these Black men are simply carrying out their "assigned modern rolls.  The factory and steal mills are gone. And the job training programs are little more than patronage hustles for the democratic Black political class, including Black ministers-  the republicans have their own hustles off this misery another level above.

Meanwhile in the hood, drugs have filled the void to such an extent that marijuana use is more common than aspirin, which means like Outkast said in that song Spottie Ottie Dopaliscious "Caint gamble feeding baby off that dope game, might not always be sufficient, but the United Parcel Service and the people at the Post Office aint called you back, cause you got, cloudy piss, so now you back in the trap, just that".  But  Black men in the hood are still expected to make "that paper" and in the hood, admired for doing so. Cause this is still be, America. And the only real opportunity to do so, is by being in a gang. And in the Black community, gangs like babies are part of the very fabric and it's expected that gangs will be constantly at battle and ever body in the hood mostly "willingly" picks a side, which means backing a institutions six generations old that become more entrenched every day.

 And in these worlds, Black children are just as expendable- but for vastly different reasons, as they are to white Chicago.  On that side of the wall, adults have been socialized to expect nothing from life than energetic and communicative bursts of violence inside their banal and mundane "neighborhood social prisons"- confined to a few blocks- that most never really leave, except to being shipped off to the real USA Prison Industrial Prison Complex, or in death.

The first and perhaps only break in this tragedy didn't come from "gum shoe" dingy bleak apartment to bleak dingy apartment door banging" and throwing corner boys against the hood of cop cars, but from the comforts of the station house.  Right after a  -probably- white detective signed onto a police computer, perhaps first checking his email, maybe writing a quick racist update about this very case on the sewer CPD blog "Second City Cop, ( if you really wanna know what white cops think of Black Chicago, check it out)  then updating his own Facebook page with the same racist comment, before finally getting down to police business, entering "Jonathan Watkins" into Facebook's "find people"window.

 The police didn't need Facebook to tell them that Jonathan Watkins plays "dual roles" in his community besides for grieving father.  In the Woodlawn neighborhood, he is clearly a committed and ready-for-what -ever, upper level street soldier, dedicated to doing what needs to get done, on behalf of his organization. The 30 arrests on his jacket, including his most recent three year bid for aggravated use of a gun three blocks away from the shooting that claimed his daughter, proves this. And the fact that his daughter's mother, was shot two blocks away while she was 8th months pregnant with Jonylah, demonstrates the isolated confinement of residents with high intensity violence in these communities.
Jonathan Watkin's Facebook Page photos,  might appear menacing to mainstream white America, but are tragically ubiquitous through out the Facebook world of inner city Black America, representing the only thing these men can lay claim to:

 Murderous gang bravado

including hand jesters representing gang affiliations. In Watkins's case you can see he is a proud Gangster Disciple.

And demonstrating their ability in the mist of grinding poverty inducing despair, to get high and stay high. These are just a few of the bleak photos of many on Watkins's Facebook Page, of him doing the exact same thing, gang signs and smoking weed.

But the major evidence of motive to this murder, was not from a Facebook photo, but an angry comment detectives saw posted earlier before the shooting, suggesting that Watkins was targeted for participating in an earlier gang drug robbery. Again details of some many crimes are posted on Facebook, that detectives view them first.

While Watkins was in the hospital, his face book page was updated, with new pictures added of him with his child, while the comment section was removed, clearly a little too late.

Who ever did this, of course needs to be in jail.  But on the streets they say, don't hate the hustle, hate The Game. No body, would ever chose this Game over real opportunities. 

 The problem is America doesn't care enough about ending The Game by providing real opportunities, especially when there are so many ancillary profits to be made outside Black America off the game and the hustlers.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Fried Chicken, from West Africa, Traveling from Black Celebrations During Chattel Slavery, Throughout the Americas, Including The Barbados, to Southern Roads as a Gris Gris, to My Humble Kitchen on a Cold Winter's Night.

I finally managed to properly make fried chicken.  Ive been attempting it for years, only succeeding in producing "nuclear explosions" that dismally coated my stove, counter tops, and floor, with thick grease and flower, that I'd immediately clean up as if I were hiding all traces of a crime. 

Fried chicken was common in West Africa using batter and palm oil. But it's first introduction to America came from Scottish immigrants who used lard to fry small diced pieces of chicken as a fritter in the mid 1700's. 

Enslaved Black people reformatted it, frying whole pieces of chicken and adding spices similar to how it was done in West Africa. 

I used a Bajan recipe from the vendors who fry chicken and fish in huge cast iron pots atop 
provisional braziers fueled by wood fires along Baxter's Road in Bridgetown, Barbados. Some people compare Baxter's Road to the backstreets of New Orleans in the 1930's or an Afro-Caribbean version of Porgy and Besse's" Cat Fish Row".

The Bajan way to fry fish and chicken starts with fresh; scallions, red onions, and garlic, sliced so fine as to be art, combined with a mixture of spices and herbs, that produce a spring green swampy looking mixture, (all in a small mason jar I purchased especially for the occasion), with a "tip" of sea salt added to preserve the concoction in the refrigerator for long term use, which is good because I want to put it on every thing.  I let it sit for about a week before I scored and then marinaded the chicken over night, in the pungent highly aromatic secret concoction.

I am proud that on this could winter's night, my home has the good smell associated with the frying of chicken and that I finally mastered the loud crackling hisssssss as each piece of the chicken, coated with flower, and this time mixed with Blue Corn Meal  ( preferred by the Afro Caribbean's and the original non spanish natives of Latin America)  is laid in bacon lard. 

For me fried chicken is not just comfort food in-bedded in the memories of my child hood memories. It's a link to resistance of my ancestors who were able to coax intermittent joy out of the terror, pain, and insanity of chattel slavery. Unlike cows and pigs, chickens though expensive for enslaved Black people, still was affordable enough to be purchased, raised, and eaten, for special occasions. To be ready for these celebrations, the cooks honed their skills by experimenting on the chickens they fried for the white families who in slaved them.

During segregation, traveling for Black people was fraught with the deadly hazards of Jim Crow laws that changed from town to town and state to state, as well as local racists customs unknown to weary travelers,  so often, it was simply best, not even attempt to eat at roadside food shacks.  Therefore fried 
chicken became not just a hold over meal to keep stops to an absolute minimum, but as sort of   
gris gris  where Black folk at the beginning of their journey, by either bus or car, prepared a batch of fried chicken, (which traveled well because of the spices) in a shoe box for the long journey generally to visit family, who then prepared for them another shoe box of fried chicken for the the long journey home.