An Under Examined Now: New Orleans

 

A friend told me New Orleans was exactly my kind of place. A different friend described New Orleans as completely debauched. I think one was referring to the city’s reputation for music history and food and the other was talking about drunken toplessness. He compared it to Vegas where too many people are trying too hard to do something regrettable. He did however give New Orleans credit in that while Vegas is a plaster imitation of a million other somewhere elses, New Orleans is in fact a real place all its own.

I had in my head, thanks to history books and too many movies, an image of a place a lot like Philly, having an old colonial feel topped off by a few decades of industrial decay, just with more of a swing than a beat- and wrought iron balconies. Maybe I was just seeing what I wanted to see, but I wasn’t completely wrong. I would have been all the way right if I hadn’t overestimated New Orlean’s ability to deliver filth. With everything I had heard about Katrina and Bourbon Street, combined with what I experienced in Philly, I expected a little bit more disaster than I got.  While there was plenty of graffiti accented by dead palm fronds, there were no piles of trash blowing down the sidewalk. Philly keeps its filthiest title.

The whole place looks like it used to be green, was then grown over in black mold, and finally scrubbed hard with bleach. The result is a faded green and white streaked with grey black echoing the Spanish moss that hangs from trees outside of town. There aren’t as many trees in town, and they are strung with beads not moss.

When I got there it was surprisingly quiet. There were people around, places were open, but I got the feeling the whole city was resting up, waiting for something to happen later. There were bright colored bits of cloth left torn and strewn over everything. Formely glossy green gold and purple beads hung from tree branches and balcony railings and rainbow flags mixed in regularly with the flour de li. It was like the whole city was experiencing a post drag show hangover. Like something wild and just a touch trashy had already happened, it was sure to happen again, but everyone needed a nap first.

Crossing a grassy median by the trolley tracks I stepped over a pile of discarded casino chips. It was a small pile of Harra’s disks in purple yellow and green. I am not now nor have I ever been a gambler, so as I kept walking past that stash I simultaneously wondered if I had just passed a pile of redeemable money, how one might redeem a pile of found chips, and how badly I would get mocked if I went to Harra’s and tried. Wondering if it was worth a try I noticed an old woman who looked like money walking a miniature dog past a homeless man, and just past the homeless man was a hipster.

Actually they were two, not one- a couple. He with his horn rimmed glasses and beanie, her with a lemon yellow bob and septum piercing, neither of which alone make a hipster, but I saw them navigating by phone, not taking pictures of pretty houses, which could only mean Yelp. I have made it a best practice to follow tattooed millennials who are navigating on foot via Yelp. It is how I have found some of my best meals. On this occasion they were right and so was I.

They were indeed finding food and it was better than good. My first instinct would be to say that the Turkey and the Wolf is not what would be considered New Orleans cuisine, but it is there, and I’ve never had buffalo sauce deviled eggs topped with chicken skin ‘cracklins’ anywhere else, so I would have to say my first instinct was wrong. My second instinct was to order said eggs as well as the shredded lamb gyro drowned in dill. My second instinct did not disappoint. I may have been the only one Instagramming the houses out on my walk but everyone at lunch posted their meal. That includes me.

There were no hipsters at Cochon, and the fact that Google maps had it listed as existing at all made me worry just a little. But it was the closest restaurant to the hotel that wasn’t a hotel restaurant and it was going completely ignored by the tourists who were in town for Wrestlemania, which I saw as a good sign so I went in. I sat at the chef’s counter right in front of the wood burning oven. The chef’s counter is where you sit so you can see your food being made and hear the chef yell unintelligible things to everyone in the kitchen and then they all shout back in unison “yes chef”. You see people scurrying about doing menial things like washing plates, hauling flour and stoking an oven till chef rings a little bell and slides a plate of edible art onto a counter where a less sweaty person picks up the plate for delivery. The waiter described dish Cochon as pulled pork that is formed into a patty, lightly breaded then pan seared. It was good but it was the eggplant soufflé that made me want to shout “yes chef”. I did not expect to like it but the waiter suggested it. and he was right.

Food is everywhere in New Orleans. It is in every little corner shop, in the balconies. In the river, the ocean- everywhere. I had stuffed flounder at Adolfo’s, oysters at Felix’s, boudin and meat pies at Bourree, lime seared chicken at Cane & Table, shrimp etouffee at Galatoire’s, beignet at Café Du Monde, and crawfish at some side of the road place where the guy at the register had to speak through one of those little devices throat cancer survivors use to sound like a robot. They were all worth it in all the ways that matter. No, they are all worth it in all the ways that exist. It is a city where- when it comes to food- no matter how you roll the dice you win. It is telling that in all the days I was there in all the miles I walked or drove, I only saw one McDonalds and never saw a Target. I did see a Bubba Gump, which made me remember that Office episode where Michael’s favorite NY pizza spot is Sbarro’s. Because I’m much more Dwight than Michael I kept walking.

 

Despite it being a Wednesday. I had to weave and squeeze my way around revelers and wanderers down the blocks off Jackson Square. In full disclosure those streets are quite narrow so they aren’t the hardest thing to fill, but the rows of second story balconies packed with people give those streets a gauntlet quality that could be either exciting or terrifying, depending on the person- or people I suppose if you consider both the walkers and the balconers. I enjoyed it. It is a place that feels like a place. The quiet from earlier in the day was gone replaced by jazz.

I’m calling it jazz despite my not really knowing a way to define that genre- but there were plenty of trumpets, tubas, clarinets, and upturned hats or buckets sitting on the curb waiting for tips. Whatever an actual authority might call it, it was mostly upbeat and made walking down a street of strangers feel a bit like a party. No. It felt like multiple parties all squished together. One party was being led by a slightly tubby 20 year old doing covers of 70’s funk songs accompanied by a weathered Al Green doppelganger. Next door, and this part was a surprise to me, was country music. Stepping into an almost empty bar I was initially disappointed to hear a twangy voice slowly whining over an acoustic guitar. I was a little intrigued when I looked on stage to see that noise coming from a black man. As I stared in wonder, a little bit in horror, I realized I knew the song. It was “pictures of You by the Cure. I was witness to a black man singing a country version of a Cure song.  I was amazed, a little impressed, but definitely didn’t want to stay to hear that. One more door down was a full swing band crammed into a very small corner. The sound was great, thumping bass line and quick fingered clarinet, but 20 year olds in fedoras and zuit suits made the place feel a little to costume party for my tastes. Which was fine because there was another bar with another band right next door. This one had a steel guitar and organ and a 40 year old white man singing about bringing a loaded gun to the door to chase off salesmen. I appreciated what he was doing but his voice sounded explainey more than singy and no where near whaling or soulful. The place that finally made me linger was an ensamble that looked like an “all ages” chess club, or maybe like a tech company kick ball team, but they played like I thought the city should sound without looking too kitschy.

Just about an hour’s drive up the Mississippi there is a row of preserved plantations popular with chartered tours and wedding receptions. Facing right up to the big river and backed by sprawling fields of sugar cane are the sorts of palaces fantasized about in Gone with the Wind or any other antebellum story. There you find the real life relics that inspired those post war un reconstructed ideas. Oak Alley aptly named with a long arched tunnel of Oak limbs flanking a path leading to bright white columns encasing a genteel two story wrap around porch is right off the road. One mile up river is another called Evergreen, and then there is Laura, and St. Joseph. They are all landscaped to photographic perfection with clean and quaint gift shops selling cook books and hoop skirts. Lousiana isn’t unique in this. After all, the real Terra is in Atlanta and Mt. Vernon is above all else, celebratory. I have been on house and ground tours in Virginia, Savannah, Charleston, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and they all do things pretty much the same. They dress up like the white people who owned the place and tell wonderful stories of rags to riches mercantilism, explain the furniture, and then they laud the family’s contributions to the community through the 1930’s or 60’s when the last spinster descendent turned the estate over to a preservationist trust so we could all enjoy the rich history that lives in this beautiful place.

Then there is the Whitney.

Historically the Whitney is exactly like all the others. It too started with a colonists dream built into a business then handed down as a family palace. Its history is no different than Monticello, the Hermitage, or all its neighbors along the big river but it is fundamentally, foundationally, spiritually, different from all of them today.

I have been to Monticello and been told on the house tour that Mr. Jefferson had trouble getting a good cook to stay in the house. I was told a story of how Jefferson made a great investment in his chef’s French training only to have said chef skip town once back in America. There was no mention that this was because the chef was a slave and slaves didn’t like being slaves. Nor was there mention of this slave being related to the master’s family by blood and I was informed that this was scandalous rumor that couldn’t be proven- despite the fact that a Pulitzer prize winner had recently done just that.

I was told another tale at the home of Andrew Jackson where great honor is given to a grey haired old black man who when given his freedom, decided to stay on the plantation. The tour gave no room for questioning why.

But I have also been to Buchenwald in Germany.

Buchenwald was a concentration camp built by Nazi Germany as part of the final solution. After its liberation by Allied armies the local Germans were made to tour the facility. It was thought important that those who may not have been directly responsible, though perhaps complicit, be brought face to face with the realities of genocide and death. Today the camp is open as a museum and memorial to those who suffered and or died there.

That is the Whitney Plantation.

There was no talk there of confederate bravery or Nazi scientific precision, just honesty and reverence for the black people who suffered and or died-for the sole purpose of making some white people rich. It was not really about blame- though it was honest and fair in a way that those other houses have never been, nor was the prevailing feeling one of hate or revenge.

I have been to DC and stood at the Vietnam memorial, a large wall listing the names of the dead, and it feels sacred. At the Whitney there is a similar memorial listing names of black people who suffered-and or died-as slaves just in Louisiana. It lists double the number of names as the wall in DC (57,939 vs 109,200) and felt to me at least as powerful.

And then there are those statues.

In the little chapel, and out in the wooden shacks, are black children cast in bronze. Their visible presence is an unavoidable reminder of who lived in these homes and why. They are haunting. But they aren’t just blank recreations of what might have been, these children have names. And they have stories. In the 1930’s the federal government sent out employees with recording equipment to capture the stories of those old people who were alive back in slave times. The statues are those people, portrayed at the age they would have been when emancipated. The result is not just a bunch of kid statues, but real people whose stories you can know and stand and hear while looking at them standing or sitting in the location where they were born- meant to suffer and or die to make some white family rich. There is no such thing at other houses.

But what struck me the most, or hit me the hardest, was a bell.

Bells were normal on plantations and they were rung for several reasons. They rang to call everyone in from the field, or for lights out, or as a call to gather to witness someone being punished. The Whitney has such bells. The Whitney also has something else other plantations don’t really have- black visitors. I have stood in several crowds of German, Japanese, or French people at dozens of historic plantations- but what I had never done before was be in such a place standing next to black people. Outside of minors who were bussed to such places on field trips or the awkward bridesmaid whose white sorority sister opted for a genteel plantation wedding, I had not known black people to visit the location of their ancestor’s torture.

But at the Whitney I witnessed a tour guide tell of the old ringing of plantation bells with the explanation that now they choose to ring them in honor of the memory of black people who once lived there, and then I watched a young black mother send her little black son up to pull the rope. When the bell rang I lost my mind. My head stopped thinking and I started feeling. My eyes welled up, my breathing caught short and I had to walk away. I didn’t just see and know things right then, I felt them.

There is meaning in that.

And then I left that place and went a mile down the road to another such house where the guide proudly showed me the plantation owner’s signature on multiple loyalty pledges where he had duplicitously promised not to fight against the United States in the civil war any more. The guide chuckled when he also showed me the list of battles this plantation owner fought in after breaking those promises. There was no mention of black people other than to brag that after emancipation most of the slaves chose to stay. He had no answer as to who those black people were or why they made that so called “choice”.

 

And that is New Orleans.

It is an old city with much of its story sinking in mud both real and figurative. I t is a place where bad things happened and happen. It is the kind of place where despite all of those things or maybe because of them, people choose not to focus but drench themselves in bourbon and beads. The music swings loud, the food is full of flavor, and they dance at funerals.

The city is turning 300 years old this year which is “founding fathers” old in American years and all this time the crescent city has been its own kind of place with its own story. More than any other city this one is the story of France, Spain, the Huma and Choctaw- and Africa. And then the United States, Haiti, and the Confederacy. All the while Andrew Jackson waves his hat triumphantly in the square and goes mostly ignored. The crowds that mill around are more interested in Café Dumond’s beignets or the buskers on the corner. They are not really looking into the city’s history, unless maybe on a ghost tour, which is less about what happened then and more about what sort of then still haunts now. Which is appropriate because now is haunted by then so much more than the crowds appear to want to know. Though in all fairness the crowds only appear to want to know bourbon and brightly colored beads.

The party is so loud and constant that you sense it has and will always be going on and consequentially the place is celebrated but only shallowly considered. Maybe that is changing just a little, they did after all take down a statue or two,

but I don’t really know.

I don’t live here.

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Black Firefighters: Black History Month

America’s first firefighting company was founded in Philadelphia by good ol’ Ben Franklin in 1736.

The first “Black” firefighting company in Philadelphia was founded by a free Black man named James Forten 82 years later. Back then all firefighting was done by volunteers, no one was getting paid to extinguish flames. But still the white people protested against this new fire company and the city shut it down in less than a year.IMG_1297

The city started paying professional fire fighters in 1871, but none of those professionals were Black till they hired Isaac Jacobs in 1886. The catch was they didn’t actually let him fight fires, just clean the stables. Mr. Jacobs wasn’t satisfied being a stable boy, he wanted to fight fires, so he left the department after 4 years.

In 1905 Philadelphia hired its second Black fire fighter, Steven Presco. He insisted on fighting fires and was killed doing so 2 years later.IMG_1299

Twelve years later, in 1919 Philadelphia founded its first official Black fire station, Engine 11. Despite being designated as the Black station, Engine 11 was captained by white firefighters and not used to fight fires but was strictly restricted to city maintenance work. They were the city’s original pothole crew.

It was not until 1952 that Philadelphia officially integrated its fire department. That makes a full 134 years between the city’s first black firefighter and actual integration. What a long hard road full of death and humiliation to fight for the privilege of protecting people from fire.

Philly’s story is not unique and similar story lines played out in Virginia, New Orleans, and an especially interesting case in San Antonio.IMG_5303

The city of San Antonio formed a number of professional fire brigades immediately after the close of the civil war. Their cadre of companies included 2 engines run by freed Black men. The catch was the white brigades were paid by the city and the Black brigades were not paid at all. Yet they still functioned. That is until these two companies requested to be paid like the others and in response the city simply banned Black people from being in fire companies.

All of these stories illustrate a couple of different things. First, that there existed qualified and willing Black people since the very beginnings of American firefighting. Second, is that the obstacles to full Black participation in this form of professional, or public life, was not the Black people themselves but a combination of the general American population and the white people who ran city governments.

But despite the obstacles intentionally placed in their way, Black people continuously persisted and fought.

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.

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.

What Are We Building?

We all came from somewhere and someone. This is true for all of us. Our past is just that, we can appreciate it or not, but we should understand this truth especially when we consider that whether we are intentional about it or not, we are all creating what comes next for others.

Actively, passively, it doesn’t strictly matter since time is inevitable and as no one was created in a vacuum, we have all played a role in someone else’s story. Once you begin a story, then start the clock running, a plot has begun and the player in the tale cannot undo it.

So what are you doing with yours? What story, or setting, are you creating?

I was recently able to spend some time with extended family including my parents and together we spent time with my children. I enjoyed it and I enjoy them. I appreciate those who gave so much of themselves to create what and who I am, and I appreciate- though in a different way- that the things I choose to do now and into the future have an effect on those with whom I began.

My grandmother, the one I don’t remember, taught ballet. By all accounts her love and appreciation for ballet outpaced her own skills at dancing, enough-so, that what she passed on to her daughters was a critical and nuanced love for the art more than a participatory aspiration. I am the son of that grandmother’s son, and as this inheritance was apparently maternal, I wasn’t gifted that. Not completely.

I haven’t been raising my children in the same place that I was raised, nor where my parents grew up, and from this new environment my daughter somehow got infected by pointe shoes and tutus. She got it from a “there” (Philadelphia) and not from a “who” (her parents) as we had no ballet appreciation to gift her. But just this past weekend, watching my aunt, watch my daughter dance the Spanish role in the Nutcracker, I saw directly how what I am doing now, ripples out and touches others in all directions- those in my past as well as those who are “now” but may be way off to the side. Because we are swimming in the same body of water. My aunt loved both the dance and the dancer in a way that even her parents couldn’t completely match. I loved that.

And all of this that has happened and is happening now, will matter and help determine what my children do or become when they move out and move on and start their own new things.

We should all look at ourselves and all of our ripples, and consider what it is we are trying to create for tomorrow. We can love who we are and where we come from and still work to do better. We can work to create good things that have never been, or like my family and ballet, skip back to something that was good before but lost along the way.

Because while we all have some sort of genesis that goes in to what we are, none of us are completely bound by it. I may feel limited in my abilities through either or both genetics and socio-economics, but at the end of the day I am my own, and I have will, and what are we all going to do with that?

If things aren’t what they should be now, let us acknowledge that “we” created our “now” and with our volition we can and must do something about it. This means that both you and I and they are all responsible for my very own now, and we all will create what comes next. We all have played a role and no matter what we choose, we will continue to play one moving forward. You did this to me, and I am doing it to you now. We cannot escape the we- nor the I.

If things are good, let us appreciate that and realize how it got that way and determine what should be done with that good going forward. We have to. We are obligated because we all came from somewhere and someone, which means that everything we do is creating those things (someones and somewheres) for new people who are to come- we are connected.

Kicks, Cars, and the Green Book: Route 66

I first knew the song thanks to Depeche Mode, my Dad probably knows it thanks to Chuck Berry, most kids today probably know it from Pixar’s movie Cars, but the song Route 66 first hit the charts in 1946 thanks to Nat King Cole.

I live on Route 66.

I get both my kicks and my groceries there.IMG_0374

Touted as Americas first interstate, Route 66 stretches from Chicago to
Santa Monica. Oddly enough, for a road that stretches across so much of the country, most of that road goes through nowhere.IMG_6160 My particular stretch of that old road is the kind of no where that filled up with people yet never quite became a place. There isn’t a solid there here.

When driving through nowhere you best mind the gas gauge.IMG_6165

Back before the Prius cars needed lots of gallons for very few miles and this meant pulling over and filling up in places like Cucamonga California- or Barstow. Because of that long gone need, or maybe somehow in honor of it, my little stretch of this road is frequented by all sorts of cars you don’t see every day in other places.

I live where old cars go after they die.IMG_1699

When me and my little one stopped by the only museum in my city, they had one artifact that surprised me. They had a Green Book. I had heard of it, known what it is, but never seen one. It wasn’t in great shape and was framed.IMG_6153

The Green Book was something like a AAA travel guide for Black people. This was necessary because, much like planning out where to plug in a Prius, in those days you had to plan out your pit stops, and only certain pits would do business with Black people. The Green Book listed the places a Black family could fill up, eat, or stay the night.

Which I knew but didn’t really think about in California. Not that California is immune to that sort of thing entirely, but sometimes in my mind, back when stuff like that was in its hey-day, California didn’t even exist.

Sometimes my mind is wrong.IMG_3176

Anyone out there know where I can get my hands on a copy of the Green Book? That little museum (which has the friendliest docents I’ve ever met) could use a better copy.

Green Book

The Problem With “White” as a Culture.

Current events and some recent conversations, give cause for more explanation. So here goes.

The problem with “white” as a culture, is that it was manufactured at the expense of others. What I mean by this, is that white, as a race or a “culture” has only existed as a means to restrict those deemed non-white from certain rights or privileges.montgomerymen

For example there were once, English, Irish, Quaker, or Puritan. French were French via geographical origin and Catholics were such by baptism. These people only became white after Africans began demanding rights or intermingling too closely with English, Irish, Quaker or Puritan. In the American colonies, where people came from various nations with differing religions and motivations, to settle a land already populated with people who already had ideas of their own, these immigrants looked for ways to group themselves for protection, or to assert power. The French teamed up with the Iroquois, the Irish and Scots were lumped in with England, and Spain decided they were with the Pope. When the dust settled and the Colonies had a chance to be whatever they wanted, they decided that they were white.sideview

I wasn’t there but the records they left seem to indicate they chose to be white in large part to make sure they weren’t obligated to share or serve anyone who was something else. So money, courts, votes, property, rights, all the things under the umbrella of “American”, could be held by those who were once Irish or English, Puritan or Anglican, but not Black or Indian. There was of course the whole issue with women, which was easily solved by saying women could have access to those things if they married a white man, and then they made it illegal for a white man to marry anyone not deemed white. Because of this manufactured umbrella, many people were maybe still a little bit Scottish, perhaps a whole lot Presbyterian, but also white- AKA American.IMG_7571

Over time, many, like my family, became less of one thing and picked up some others, but kept the white all the while. It was synonymous with American. My ancestors who shared my last name, came to the Americas as Scotch-Irish, were here when it became the United States, but by the time I came around all the Scottish was gone. No haggis, no Gaelic, I found myself Mormon not Presbyterian, but I was, and am, still-and-also white. For my people specifically, white needed to be named and claimed till after 1979. Things have changed since then, but you don’t drop off a part of your culture and identity in an instant, and you don’t drop it by simply shifting your vocabulary- though words do help.

But that whiteness only had to drop off once I no longer needed to prove I wasn’t black so I could have the full fellowship of my faith. Sometimes we didn’t call it white, we called it Ephraim or Joseph, but it played the same role. Whiteness meant one had rights and to get those rights, whiteness had to be claimed.

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Mural of former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia’s Italian Market

Through American history there have been waves of people, or groups of people, Irish, Jewish, even those from India or Iran, who have had to assert and fight, to be called white- so they could be considered American. In 1923 a “High Caste Hindu” from India took his case to the Supreme Court and argued that he should be considered white- so he could be American. He lost. A few years earlier, 1915, a man from Syria sued to be considered white and won. His skin was brown but “white” meant American so he had to claim and become it. He did not become Syrian-American, and the previous man wasn’t arguing to be Indian-American, and there were no English-American, because they didn’t need those hyphens- because they had the word white.

So again, whiteness only existed to separate people from blackness and brownness, to claim power. In the days of Jim Crow, because laws on the books allowed some Black people to be technically American, policy and practice were put in place to make sure power was protected, and it centered on the word white. Public schools were funded by all, but public college was only for white people. The draft for war was open to all, but the GI Bill was only to be claimed by those who were white. HUD provided affordable housing- as long as you were white. You can sit on a jury, hold an office, pursue life and liberty, no matter your Irish, or French, or Russian, or Persian roots, as long as you could claim you were white.

I am white.IMG_8456

There is no need for me to deny it. I was born this way and that is fine. It is my experience, I do not hate it. I do not hate my white family, or my white coworkers, or the white people I meet in the street. Due to my ancestors, geography, history, and some biology, I am American, male, straight, and thanks to my experience, I am also white. I cannot deny my whiteness because it has granted me protection and rights and assimilation without being challenged and without having to claim it. All that was just naturally gifted.

But not so for those who are born black or brown. They have and still do, need to claim those rights so naturally enjoyed by myself. Those who were and are legally deemed Black, who then came to celebrate their skin, were and are not doing so to crush anyone else. They are reclaiming their rights and their joys that whiteness was created to steal. Black is beautiful, Black and proud, Black power- none of them were created to oppress or condemn whites as people, but very much a response to why the race “white” was created and the effects it has caused. Despite what laws are written or what words some might say, Black and Brown people still have to wrench and grip and rip their unalienable rights from the historical and sociological grasp of whiteness.

And that is not God’s plan. That is not what the American Declaration says. And that is why I don’t shout white pride, yet can support black power without hypocrisy. That is why I feel no need to say “all lives matter”, when reminded that Black lives matter too. This is why I am fine with myself and all the good that I am, skin included- but will not elevate the word white.

Because that idea and that construct- must be undone.

the Getty

To get to the Getty you take a tram from the parking lot. No, that isn’t completely true. I took a tram, you can walk up the hill, but it was hot outside and it is UP the hill. Don’t worry the line moves fast.IMG_8181

While walking into the modernistic rotunda looking for our tour guide, I wondered aloud why this place was so busy. “I don’t think I’ve seen an art museum this crowded since the Louvre.” My wife gave me the side eye and asked, “When is the last time you saw a Rembrandt and Van Gogh for free?”

Good point.IMG_8222

They also had Gauguin. And they had, I mean have, Monet, Manet, Goya, and my favorite- tourists taking pictures.pic1

As a painter, I have always appreciated other’s work in that same medium, but as an appreciator of history, I have learned to love sculptures.

For example, while the tour guide was talking about the technique used to craft marble or get stone to look like silk, I was learning that long before plumbing, before electricity, even before we understood the human circulatory system, men were taking the time to groom super cool mustaches (their opinion not mine) and dress with a little swagger. There is art in the subject not just the medium.IMG_8060

Or maybe there was this woman, Mary Seacole, a Jamaican who treated wounded soldiers in the Crimean War- which I should note was before America’s Civil War- who taught me not only about an artist’s skill with chisel, but that the look a black woman gives when someone says “confederate statues are history” rather than a celebratory memorial to racism, has been the same for more than 100 years.

I can hear this statue better than I can see it. I had several seats after viewing it.IMG_8217

I also learned that even before digital media, there were pixels. Poor resolution and revivalist mosaic are pretty much the same thing.IMG_8046

What struck me about the Getty, even more than the sculpture, and crowds, was the space. I am too lazy to investigate the planning process or theory in its creation, but it functions as a location first, and houses art second. There are gardens surrounded by architecture placed on a hilltop overlooking LA.

It is a place. A space. To be in. To be surrounded by and lounged in and enjoyed. It is an environment.

And I like that.IMG_8232

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Mission San Carlos Borromeo del rio Carmelo

At one time Mission San Carlos Borromeo, just outside Monterey California, was the capitol of the Spanish Empire in Alta California. Junipero’ Serra, the founder of the California mission system, and now a Saint, is buried in the chapel. Jose Antonio Romeu, the second Spanish Governor of all California is buried there too. Today it is beautiful and celebrated, but by 1863, the place was in ruins.

What happened?img_2267

The short answer is the end of slavery in Mexico.

When the missions were first established they technically “belonged” to the local inhabitants aka Indians. It was their land and their buildings, but the management was sort of leased to the Catholic priests for a period of time to help get things up and running. At least that is how it was drawn up on paper.img_2260

In reality, the way it worked out, was that the Spanish forced the local native inhabitants to build, and then work in, these palatial compounds.

They were indeed palatial.img_2281

When the lease on Mission Carmelo ran out, the Franciscans in charge simply kept control. There were no non-European authorities nearby to force them otherwise, and the native locals were already effectively slaves.

So the place stayed splendid.img_2310

Then, in 1821, Mexico won its own American revolution and kicked the Spaniards out. Soon after the new government issued a proclamation of emancipation (42 years before Lincoln), freeing the enslaved Indians, who then left the missions.img_2283

Without an unpaid workforce the missions couldn’t support themselves and they began to decline.img_2280

Then the Mexican government went a step further and confiscated the missions from the Catholic church and started selling off the surrounding lands and most of the fancy stuff inside got ransacked- or carried off by retreating friars.img_2284

As a side note, this same crack down on Mexican slavery caused a dust up in what became Texas, since the white Americans who recently moved there still wanted the right to keep other people as slaves.img_2290

But eventually California became America, Catholics, Indians, Mexicans, and all- and in 1931 real work got underway in restoring Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, or just the Carmelo Mission as most people know it, to its original glory.img_2311

They didn’t exactly tell that story when I visited. The pamphlets have bits and pieces, and the tour guides are happy to tell you about some artifacts, but mostly its just a church that hosts touring 4th graders.img_2269

1776 in Las Californias: Mission San Juan Capistrano

At the same time Thomas Jefferson was declaring all men equal in Philadelphia, a bunch of Spaniards were declaring Juaneno Indians Catholic in California. So basically Orange County and Philadelphia are the same place.IMG_6604Looking back with almost 250 years of hindsight, the biggest difference between the two might be the separation of church and state. In 1776 the English colonists were claiming local rights with documents penned in state houses, but the Spaniards were declaring jurisdiction via baptismal records written in churches.IMG_6427

Oddly enough, both types of buildings had bells, and both were in large part built by slaves.IMG_6454

The bells at Mission San Juan Capistrano had to be buried in the ground and temporarily abandoned as the Spanish had to go fight at Valley Forge- er… San Diego, since the native born rebels were trying to liberate themselves from Spain down there.

But unlike Valley Forge, the Americans lost the war on the West Coast, and the Europeans returned to San Juan Capistrano, unearthed the bells, and started making wine.IMG_6400

Turns out the first grapes grown in California were in Orange County. What a misnomer. So on one coast you have political secularists growing tobacco and cotton, while on the other you have Franciscans with muskets making wine.IMG_6385Maybe religion wasn’t the only difference. Having mentioned Valley Forge I should probably also mention weather.

If you visit Valley Forge today you may find grassy fields, or snow covered cabins, depending on the calendar. If you visit Mission San Juan Capistrano, no matter the month, you will find North America’s best Petra imitation.IMG_6586

At Independence Hall you will wait in line for a National Parks guard to let you in through a gate where you might be led on a tour by someone wearing a tri-corner hat.

At San Juan Capistrano you can receive communion from a catholic priest during mass.IMG_6426

Both are America.