Tag Archives: culture

On Racism, Theater, and Trouble In Mind [Culturelicious]

Trouble in Mind

I’ve been to a great many plays on race. Some, like August Wilson’s Jitney, manage to survive through the ages and provide a stunningly timeless view on the problems of the colorline.

Others, like David Mamet’s Race or Neil Labute’s This Is How It Goes, make me realize how much of an abstract concept racism’s pervasiveness can be for white people. Unfortunately, much of the mainstream art world is controlled by white people, and therefore what is considered worthy of production is shaped by white perceptions.

Trouble in Mind has been resurrected, but there are always complications. Over at the Arena Stage website, Irene Lewis speaks to the cause of the persistent racial gap in evaluation of material:

For years, the play Trouble in Mind, by African-American playwright Alice Childress, was recommended to me as a show that, as artistic director of CENTERSTAGE, I should produce. I had read the play several times over the years and found it to be “old-fashioned/old hat,” especially concerning the depiction of the character of the white director. Finally, I decided to ask the opinion of an African-American actress whose judgment I have always valued. She read the play and told me that she liked it. When I asked if she found the role of the white director dated and unbelievable, she said, “No.” So I came around to the opinion that this was another case of – what should I call it – whites (me) being “out of touch” with the experiences of African-Americans. I decided to produce and direct the play at CENTERSTAGE in Baltimore. It subsequently transferred to Yale Repertory Theater. I am delighted that Molly is bringing this groundbreaking piece to Arena Stage.

“Out of touch” is the last term I would use to describe Childress’ noted work, considering it was originally performed in 1955. Considering the play was created more than five decades ago, it should not be so fresh and contemporary. And yet, we live in an era in which a white woman’s tale about a white woman and the black maids she liberated swept the bestseller’s list and the box office – clearly, things haven’t changed that much. So why the disconnect between black and white theater aficionados? As Childress herself has stated:

“There aren’t any black critics who can close a white play. But in black theater, black experience has been fought against by white critics. The white critic feels no obligation to prepare himself to judge a black play.”

And so, here we are. Continue reading

Quoted: Jeff Chang on Libraries and “Our Collective Imagination”

I love libraries and I vote

Enter the collectors, the hipsters, and the DJs. Their rediscovery of musical heritage is a cyclical phenomenon made possible by the deletion of massive amounts of culture. A process we seen repeatedly occurring in Black music, for instance, from the blues to free jazz to funk to disco to hip-hop.

Revivals are what happen at the point where the margin of the marketplace meets the bleeding-edge of hipsterism. It’s lots of fun, but it can also lead to decontextualization and erasure. Where do sagging jeans come from, right? In the cultural economy, in other words, history itself can be deleted.

So on the one hand, you have the market failure that occurs when companies choose to delete records or stop circulating records that have historical or creative importance, music that embodies our human story or music that helps seed new creativity.

Because of market failure, you can’t get De La Soul’s first four albums on iTunes. Nor can you get most of Biz Markie’s albums. You can’t get the complete Def Jam-era Public Enemy boxset Chuck D and the crew put together almost a decade ago. […]

When I go into a library, I don’t have to worry about who is holding whose copyrights, why this book didn’t sell enough to continue to be available in any marketplace, how many other stories there are out there that I am missing because the storytellers don’t have the money or the property rights to tell them.

In the library, I am in a space beyond the marketplace, beyond consumption, beyond the money censors, beyond the noise. I am in a place where librarians have accumulated the knowledge and the stories important to me and my community.

The library is the embodiment and the refuge of our collective imagination. In the library, we learn just how big and full of possibility the world is and we build the kindling to fuel our creative fires and to change our culture.

—Jeff Chang, “In Defense of Libraries,” a talk given at a rally to save Oakland’s Public Libraries

Confessions From A Christian [Racialigious]

by Guest Contributor Tomi Obaro

The thought of writing about my faith terrifies me.

This terror is (mostly) irrational.

Convinced that most secular progressives would launch into a tirade about the evils of the church, (or worse respond with a measured, “Really?” maintain conversation but narrow their eyes and draw their wine glasses closer to their bodies, warding against my offensive Jesus vibes) I tend to keep my religion under wraps.

It’s kind of absurd, really, given the fact that my encounters with these militant secular progressives are entirely imaginary.

Continue reading

Caribbean Steampunk on a Distant World: A Review of Tobias Buckell’s CRYSTAL RAIN

by Guest Contributor Ay-leen the Peacemaker, originally published at Beyond Victoriana

In the wake of the Steampunk Kurfluffle that started with Charles Stross’ complaint against steampunk, Tobias Buckell wrote an interesting response about fantasy’s tendency to romanticize the past and mentioned his own work:

But ultimately, I share Stross’s discomfort, which is why my steampunk plays have often been about adopting the style and nodding to the history. Crystal Rain, what I called a Caribbean steampunk novel, is about Caribbean peoples and the reconstituted Mexica (Azteca in the book) of old with a Victorian level of technology, using the clothing/symbols of steampunk, but making their artificiers black.

Sadly, Crystal Rain, written in 2006, seems to have come out just before all the hotness, as it rarely gets mentioned as a steampunk novel whenever these celebrations happen.

So, now that my curiosity was piqued, I had to go out and get the book to see for myself how he handles steampunk before “the hotness.”

What’s so refreshing about Crystal Rain, besides the setting, is its clear positioning as a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. The book takes place in the multicultural, multiracial country of Nanagada, a land outside of our known history. Little touches hint that Nanagada is a society rebuilding itself from a cataclysmic disaster that occurred centuries ago. A mysterious object called the Spindle drifts in the sky. Barren areas exist that sicken the men who attempt to cross them. The Preservationists work to restore some of the lost technologies from “the old fathers” from long ago under the authority of the new governess Dihana and engineers have just started taking advantage of steam technology. Over the mountain range beyond Nanagada, however, lives the society of Azteca, a fearsome rival. Equipped with air ships and goaded to war by their gods called the Teotl, the Azteca are preparing for invasion with Nanagada in its sights. Continue reading

Mardi Gras Indians: Can Cultural Appropriation Occur on the Margins?

by Guest Contributor Adrienne K., originally published at Native Appropriations

Mardi Gras Indian

Last week, the New York Times published a really interesting article concerning Mardi Gras Indians, specifically looking at the possibility of  the “Indians” copyrighting their costumes so their images can’t be used in things like calendars, promotional materials, etc, without their consent. I’ll get to that issue in a second post, but I think the entire concept of Mardi Gras Indians deserves a deeper look.
Let’s look at the ‘culture’ of the Mardi Gras Indians, independent of history and context (something the anthropologist in me cringes at, but work with me), then we’ll backtrack a bit.

These men and women call themselves “Indians.” They are members of “tribes,” with names like “Yellow Pocahontas,” “Geronimo Hunters,” and “Flaming Arrows” (a complete list of the tribes is here). They wear over-the-top, elaborate costumes based (very) loosely on American Indian powwow regalia–with headdresses, feathers, and beading (there is a slideshow on nytimes.com that can be found here):


They have an anthem called “Indian Red” whose lyrics include:

I’ve got a Big Chief, Big Chief, Big Chief of the Nation
Wild, wild creation
He won’t bow down, down on the ground
Oh how I love to hear him call Indian Red
When I throw my net in the river
I will take only what I need
Just enough for me and my lover

Objectively, out of context, this is by-definition cultural appropriation. Imagine if these were white men and women. I should be offended…right? Continue reading

Quoted: Sandip Roy on Culture

When I first came to the U.S., Americans asked me about that “dot on the forehead.” Now, Madonna wears a bindi. Bollywood borrows Hollywood plotlines (well, two or three for one three-hour film). Now, the Kronos Quartet reinterprets Bollywood composer R.D. Burman. Birthday cards are reproducing old kitschy Indian matchbox covers. Body-hugging T-shirts worn by gay guys in the Castro say “San Francisco” in Devnagari script. There are even Bollywood appreciation classes at universities. My kitsch has become their cool.

Of course, not everything has been alchemized into cool. My big, fat Indian wedding might be hot (“I want one,” a gay man with a Southern accent told me at my neighborhood lesbian bar while sipping a sweet cocktail), but it doesn’t mean the Indian cabdriver, the 7/11 clerk or the Gujarati storeowner are any more acceptable.

Our Krishnas and curries are now public property to be sampled, remixed, chewed up and spat out as millions of cookie-cutter lunch boxes. (Probably Made in China).

It almost makes me nostalgic for the old days when people came up to me and said, “You are from Calcutta? My doctor is Indian. Dr. Harry Patel. I think he’s from that other big city—Bombay?” And they would pause expectantly, as if waiting for me to recognize Dr. Patel. Now, they want to know what restaurant I would recommend in the Bay Area for “authentic Indian food, you know, a hole-in-the-wall place where Indians go, not your white-people-Maharaja-Thali stuff.”

And I am wondering, do I want to tell you?

—Sandip Roy, “My Kitsch is Their Cool,” Colorlines

(Image Credit: Colorlines)

How Do We View Global Hip Hop Culture? [Series Introduction: On Cultural Appropriation]

by Latoya Peterson

Today, I got three text messages in rapid succession from my friend Hae.

“Check out the new MV from 2ne1 called Fire!”

“Song is addicting!”

“Street version is better than space version!”

I knew YouTube wouldn’t let me down, so I headed over there to see if someone posted an English translation:

2NE1 is just one group in a long line of Korean hip-hop (or hip-pop, according to some, but more on that later*) artists that I have enjoyed thanks to JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment. While YG is credited with popularizing the hip-hop sound in Korea, both companies have received major success with their artists.

There’s the Wonder Girls:

And Big Bang:

Back when I first discovered Korean hip-hop, I was quite fond of showing my friends this video by 1TYM, called “Do You Know Me?”:

After watching the video, my friends had a range of reactions everything from “Who knew Koreans rolled hard?” to amazement to laughter. But some people weren’t quite as accepting, posing the question “Why do they have to take our stuff?” Continue reading

Should black folks save Ebony and Jet magazine?

By Guest Contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami Said

This weekend, I received the following breathless entreaty through a listserv that I subscribe to:

Ebony/Jet Magazine on The Verge of Financial Collaspse (J P)
Date: Thu, 12 Mar 2009 07:45:31 -0400

One of the most notable permanent fixtures in every black household (back in the days), was the Ebony and Jet magazine. If you wanted to learn about your history, the plight of Black America, current issues facing Black Americans, how the political process of America affects you, how politics works, who the hottest actors were, what time a particular black television show aired, who got married recently, who were the most eligible bachelors and bachelorettes in your town, what cities had black mayors, police chiefs, school superintendents, how to register to Vote, what cars offer the best value for the buck, who employed black Americans, how to apply for college scholarships, etc., more than likely, Ebony or Jet magazine could help you find answers to those questions.

We have recently been informed that the Johnson Publishing Company is currently going through a financial crisis. The company is attempting a reorganization in order to survive. Many people have already lost their jobs with a company that has employed thousands of black Americans during the course of its existence.

In order to support this effort to save our magazine, my friends and myself have pledged to get a subscription to both Ebony and Jet magazine, starting with one year. We are urging every other club member who comes across this plea to do the same. Please post, repost, and post again, to any blog that you may own or support.

Please email this to every person that you know, regardless of their background. Let them know that Ebony and Jet magazines have been part of the black American culture for three quarters of a century, and that there is a lot that they can learn about black American culture from reading them.

We are currently discussing the idea of throwing an Ebony/Jet Party, where people can eat, drink, and sign up for their subscription on the spot. Please spread this idea around to all that you know. Your Sororities, Fraternities, Lodges, VFW Posts, Churches, Civic Groups, Block Clubs, Caps Meetings, Book Clubs, etc.

It would be a crying shame, to lose our historic magazine, during the same year of such an historic event as the election of our first black President of the United States.

Now, like a lot of other black people, I grew up with Ebony and Jet magazines on the family coffee table. I remember fondly sitting in the brown recliner in my grandparents’ back room reading a then-oversized Ebony with Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor on it. (Don’t know why I specifically recall that issue of the magazine, but for some reason it is one that remains etched in my mind.) I say this to illustrate that these magazines are part of my cultural history. Nevertheless, when I read the missive above, my first thought (after wondering if the message-writer understands that subscriptions generally account for far less of a publication’s revenue than advertising does) was…”Meh.” I’m not so sure that Ebony and Jet, as they stand today, are institutions worth going to the mat for. Continue reading