Black History: It goes all the way back to day 1

At the beginning of Black History Month we should recognize that people of African descent have been on the American continent just as long as people from Europe.* There was never a time in the history of European colonization of America that did not include black people. Nor was there really a place or time in the Americas not touched by slavery.jumpingtherail

The Spanish had been in the American slavery business for more than 100 years before the Pilgrims got to Plymouth so it shouldn’t be surprising that by the 1620’s the boats full of New England settlers also brought along Black people as slaves.

At the same time the same thing was going on in Jamestown down in Virginia, and in Philadelphia, then Charleston too.DSC02518

Hereditary slavery dictated by skin color wasn’t codified at the start and things took different routes in different regions, but on February 1st, the start of the month when a greater focus is placed on the participation of Black people in America, we should know that Black people have been here the entire time. They were never an afterthought, nor were they simply forgotten, but the stories, contributions, and relevance have been intentionally pushed aside, covered up, and discarded.

Lets fix that.

 

*There are theories and some evidence that Africans visited and even settled on the American continent before Columbus.

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They Didn’t Learn it at Home: they learned it everywhere

I have recently seen a spattering of high school and college kids getting caught on cameras saying and doing racist stuff. The public reaction is most often shock and horror, which is appropriate, and then there is this accusation that this is surely an indicator of nefariousness among the adults who raised these kids. I hear “They must be learning that stuff at home”.1_multipart_xF8FF_5_chimney rock 007

Maybe not.

When it comes to ignoring, dismissing, or disparaging the experiences or ideas of black people in America, that message is taught in the air. No one needs to be at the chalk board. Just like a child learning to walk, if left alone, they will figure it out.

The truth is that very intentional steps need to be taken in the home for a child to NOT learn the messages of assumed black inferiority, or more to the point, the inherent message of white superiority.

The idea that white is the default setting of all things America, be it citizenship, relatability, models of behavior, or representatives of corporate or skilled positions is built into how we go about our daily lives. Yes there may be, and increasingly are, representations of “diversity” throughout our environment, but they are very much just that- diversity. They aren’t the norm or the default but rather representations of the deviance from that norm. There is whiteness and then there is all that other stuff we like to sprinkle into the white pool and we call it diversity. Many of us may love diversity, but really we see it as extra. When all things are left to themselves, they float and rest in whiteness. So much so that it needn’t be named or acknowledged.IMG_6422

Because of this anything outside of white is a thing and people react to “things” in all sorts of ways. Some of us don’t really think we have “things”, as in cross-fit is my “thing” or saving the whales is my “thing”, and those of us who think we don’t have one tend to dismiss the “things” of others. I may think extreme attention to physical fitness is a distraction from things that matter, like literature, and if I am that sort of person, I might even tell jokes about cross-fit (the other day I tried to kill a roach by spraying it with Axe body spray, now the roach is named Blake and it won’t shut up about cross-fit). That would be a bias and we all have them, and we should keep them in check. Keeping our bias in check is not being overly sensitive, it is being appropriately sensitive.front gate arch

When it comes to race, this default setting of white in America means that anyone or any time blackness, or race at all, is brought up, it immediately registers as a “thing” and we tend to react accordingly. Some are into it, some dismiss it, but is not the norm. Those that mock things they aren’t into generally, will likely mock those who complain about the killing of unarmed black people because race politics aren’t their “thing”. Those who generally ignore things that don’t interest them, will likely just ignore those who claim gerrymandering intentionally suppresses the black vote, because making politics a race issue isn’t their “thing”. And then there are those who, like puppies, get excited about every”thing” and jump out to join a march or rally or just a conversation about whether or not the Oscars have been whitewashed with the same uninformed fascination I might give to excavating shipwrecks along the Outer Banks. That isn’t really my thing but it sounds cool.

Realizing this will help us understand why kids do stupid things regarding race. Understanding this is the first step in changing. And we do in fact need to change. Because America does not need to be white. America has never been a geography or system where only white people live and work. Those who aren’t white deserve full recognition and that recognition should go so far that it is assumed and need not be called out- but we are a long way away from that.

That is the goal and we cannot get there by skipping the in-between parts. That would be like running the first and last mile of a marathon but not all those pesky miles in between. Though I would argue that this is what American has historically done. Every time we start running the marathon of race (see what I did there?) we get a little bit tired and skip all the way to the finish line and just ignore race as if it is suddenly irrelevant. And when we do this without truly changing the default setting of whiteness, what we really do when we ignore “race” is ignore the people and ideas and issues that aren’t white. When we ignore race, deny its relevance, or simply do nothing, we let the environmental default do the teaching for us. We are left to the messages sent by television, peers, music, peers, schools, churches, or even just soccer teams.

And when the default is whiteness, and the default goes unchallenged and unchanged, that is what racism is.

So we have to fight that. We begin by teaching that all people have value and none of that value is based on pigmentation. That is mile 1 of 24. Mile 2, and I think most, but definitely not enough of us have been at least this far, is that skin color, that thing we call race, isn’t really a biological thing. Skin does not make anyone fast or slow, smart or dumb, lascivious or prude. Melanin, hair texture, face structure, none of those things are related. Got it. But then comes miles 3 through 23. I think mile 3 is listening to black people. I don’t mean watching black people in order to be entertained, because America has always done that, but I mean when black people, or really all non-white people but I think we have plenty to chew on if we actually invested any real time and effort listening to African-Americans or Native-Americans. Listening not talking. Again, and I really do need to repeat this, because listening to is not the same as listening about. Plenty of messages out there are about black people, I am saying the work of mile 3 is listening directly. Then next maybe asking- but not sharing. You see most of us, because it is such a human thing, after asking one little bit and hearing a little about someone else, we then share a boat load about ourselves. I know I’m a criminal offender in this regard. But white people shouldn’t do that here. We have more than 300 years of sharing all and everything about white America, we can afford to shut up for a little bit.

There is a lot more to do after that but we have never gotten even this far. There is still plenty of asking, and voting, and investing, and teaching, and repairing, and then probably more investing, before we get to mile 24 and we can start “ignoring”. I’m not sure how long that will take but I do know that marathons aren’t run naturally. What I mean is no one just sat there and waited their time and found themselves having completed a marathon. They had to train and run. We will never get to race not mattering in America by just waiting for it to happen. We cannot just wait for all the older runners to age and pass away. All this does is clear the course but it doesn’t run anywhere. And we all get fat waiting.

If America is a set of ideals, and laws, bound by a physical geography, there need not be any real place for skin color in that definition. If we stick with what America is or should be striving to be, or claiming to be, it also need not be defined by a language. Or a religion. Because the ideals of liberty and justice open to all, should in fact mean all Americans. But historically it has meant white Americans. Meant it so much that we at some point just stopped saying it out loud. But we never changed the default

So when high school kids get caught on video making light of lynching or saying racist things, we shouldn’t act so surprised. We shouldn’t assume that something extra nefarious is going on in that home. It could just as easily be that nothing about race is going on in that home. And that is exactly what doing nothing will get us.

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It Isn’t About Playing Nice in the Sandbox, It is About the Deathtraps Hidden in the Sand.

Let us not twist Martin Luther King Jr’s work into something it was not.

It was not about turning the other cheek and being silent. It was about getting punched in the face and persisting.

It was not about us all getting along and being nice, it was about claiming promised rights and justice.IMG_5719

Too many of us were taught that the civil rights movement was about where someone sat on a bus and how the solution was friendship. Simple friendship and getting along was no more the point than a bruise is the point of cancer. This simple narrative ignores the devastation and violence imposed on Black Americans by local governments, school boards, police departments, corporations, as well as run of the mill every day white people.

Black people were not fighting for the right to sit on a bus or drink from a fountain, they were screaming, shouting, fighting, and dying, for basic rights promised to all Americans. Those rights were being systematically and violently denied. The “colored” signs and fountains were just a little token on the surface to warn against those who might be tempted to scratch a little deeper. This was never really about sitting happily next to each other, it was about the fact that one group of people weren’t allowed to ever sit and rest.

Friendship without rights or justice is a degrading sort of condescension that was never a goal of the movement. Simplifying the issues of racial injustice to the basics of treating everyone kindly is similar to telling a child not to sneeze on a gunshot victim in the ER. Of course we should be kind to each other but there were, and are, bigger issues at play.

But Dr. King did talk of the day when we could be friends. I dream of that day. I think we have seen glimpses of it, but we should never fool ourselves into thinking that the friendship is the goal. It isn’t.

It (friendship and harmony) is, and would be, the natural consequence of actual justice and equality- which we have never completely attained. The field was never leveled, injustice persists, and many of us haven’t woken from our dreaming state to do the hard work required to get to that promised land.

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Norton Simon Museum: ballet will hunt me down and find me

The grandstands for the Tournament of Roses Parade are set up on Colorado Blvd in Pasadena, CA right in front of a building with the name Norton Simon on the wall. That unremarkable building is full of remarkable art.

VanGogh,  Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Rembrandt, old, new (ish), Europe, Asia, and American.

But mostly they have Degas.

I’ve seen the Little Dancer Aged 14 many times in several places, but I hadn’t previously seen her with all of her class, instructors, the corps de ballet and a bunch of ladies in bathtubs. The Norton Simon Museum has three rooms of Degas and ballet.

I didn’t know they had these there.

I often joke that I spend the majority of my life driving and the majority of that driving is to ballet classes. I don’t dance, but I have a little dancer not yet aged 14, and even when I left her home, I cannot escape.

So to balance out the lady dancey dance I ventured out on a personal quest to find artistic depictions of true manliness.

The European artists had quite the offering in every period and across several genre but when it comes to athletic fopishness and swagger, the Asian artists were the clear winners.

The French did not take the loss well.

But in my search for artistic manliness, meaning a little bit of stylish swagger expertly and intentionally executed in oil marble or ink, I found a little extra bit of manliness that wasn’t so pretty.

Like how the painting below done in the 1500s features two older men plotting the “seduction” (word on the placard) of a younger woman and after failing, accuse her of adultery for which she is condemned to death, only to be saved at the last moment.

Then, in another room, where I see Adam and Eve portrayed as the original man and women together, I turn around and see the natural next step where the man is sexually assaulting a woman.

There were additional depictions of assault that I have chosen not to post.

I will add that the Asian artists scupltures while much more explicit also appeared much more consenting.

But most of this art was old- from the past, and art museums aren’t just about what is on the walls.img_4326

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Admirable Insanity: Robolights

Kitsch and art are parallel lines that never cross. Some artists like Warhol, Lichtenstein, and I could even argue Klimpt, sort of brush up against that line, but the whole genre of pop art acts as a buffer between the two making absolutely sure that those lines do not cross.

Unless you are in Palm Springs.

Imagine the Watts Towers but replace the Antoni Gaudi influence with Tim Burton. Just as the Watts towers are a backyard monument built “just because”, so is Robolights. But Robolights has a bazillion more Christmas lights- and toilets.

Approximately 30 years ago Kenny Irwin Jr. started building giant robots in his backyard. He was 9. Since then he has graduated art school and inherited the family house, but he has never stopped building. When I say never stopped, I mean I am unsure when he stops to eat because this place is the macabre junkyard version of kudzu. It is thick, ever growing, and covers everything.

When I first visited the place and posted pictures online, the most common questions were what and why? Neither can nor should be answered. Robolights is the kind of place that must be experienced not explained.

I can tell you that there is a feature touting itself as one of only two microwaved microwaves in the world, which would be Kitschy, but while viewing the torched appliance you are standing on a path lined by thousands of little skulls flanked by microwave legged robots under an archway holding up a roller coaster of shopping carts filled with aliens.

Everywhere you look something is spinning and flashing and probably features a skull or a toilet. And it is all in some dude’s backyard in residential neighborhood. Which on paper makes this completely kitsch. I am arguing that it is not.

When Duchamp presented a urinal as artwork it was initially rejected but is now considered by many as a foundational piece of 20th century art. Comic books aren’t necessarily taken seriously, but when Lichtenstein paints one single comic frame and blows it up larger than life, collectors pay millions. It is hard to say where the line really is.

Typing out descriptions of Robolights just doesn’t work. I’m not saying its on par with the Mona Lisa, but writing that there is this painting of an acceptable looking woman who is kinda smiling but not really, would not do justice to DaVinci. Same idea here. I’m not sure Kenny Irwin is really “saying” anything, but I’m also not convinced Leonardo had some grand message when he painted Mona.

What I am definitely saying is that we should all go see the Louvre, and Kenny’s house.

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Petersen Automotive Museum: the art of the auto

Most museums are categorized or divided by type: art, history, geography, industry etc, and knowing this I expected the Petersen Automotive Museum to simply be a building full of car varieties. Ford, Chevy, Honda, Lamborghini, and so on and so forth. I expected old through new and broad representation. I went to the car museum the same way I go to the symphony- rarely, and expecting to appreciate but not necessarily enjoy it.

But I loved it.

It was all the types of museum mixed into one. It was history, it was an educational explanation of an industry, it was a celebration of of a culture, and what I loved the most, was art.

Bugatti is art. When I look at a Picasso the little placard could read something like “Portrait of Woman, cubist genre in the medium of oil.” A Bugatti could read, “Rolling Wave, art deco era, in the medium of car”.

Ferrari, a name I first learned from Magnum P.I., is the perfect marriage between art and function. No, that’s not quite right. Ferrari is art and adventure, style and unreasonable speed. Ferrari is as if the Italian sprinters showed up at the Olympic starting line wearing suits and ball gowns then promptly won every race.

I guess today’s children would appreciate seeing Lightning McQueen (he’s in the museum) the child in me appreciated seeing Herbie the Love Bug, Magnum P.I.’s Ferrari, Marty McFly’s Delorean, and the Batmobile all in a row. I suspect Kit from Nightrider is kept in the basement in order to prevent visitors like me from having a heart attack. That being said, I do consider it an oversight to not include Cameron’s father’s wrecked Ferrari from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the Ferrari room.

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In the Studio: secret santa

I don’t really like to paint, but I love paintings. All sorts of images really, illustration, portraits, photographs, I can stare at any of those things all day long. Painting is for me, a means to an ends, a taxing and laborious annoyance that must be endured in order to have interesting things to stare at.

Not every wall must have something hung on it, but some walls, when left blank, leave a hole in the room. That is why I paint. That… and also because sometimes I just get an idea of a picture I want to look at. Had I the means I could probably find stuff I like out there on the market, but till then, I paint.

Sometimes other people have rooms with blank spots on the wall and something must be done.

Someone once asked me, “What is your motivation as an artist?” I think it sounded flippant when I answered, “I just paint stuff I think it would be cool to look at.” but I meant it.img_3278

That isn’t to say I’m shy about my work, I rather like it when other people like what I do.img_3073

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