Historical Atonement

I read this LA Times article on African American reactions to Quentin Taratino’s “Django Unchained.” While I haven’t seen the movie, it started to confirm some things I had thought about the movie as a concept.

If you don’t already know, “Django Unchained” is what’s being called a “historical revenge” film. Like Tarantino’s earlier “Inglorious Bastards”–which used the historical reality of WWII to follow a fictional band of Jewish-American US soldiers who were out on a bloody search-and-destroy mission in Nazi Germany–“Django” fictionalizes US Southern slavery as a former slave and white mercenary “go guerrilla” on the plantation owners who embody anti-black racism and violent white supremacy.

Again, I haven’t seen the movie. I’m sure I will when it comes out on DVD. But when I first saw the preview, it struck me as a problematic concept. Whereas “Inglorious Bastards” could exercise a mythical revenge impulse by placing Jewish-American boys in the position of power, I don’t think the same works for slavery. First, “we” won WWII. Hitler died. Nazis were purged, hunted, and often tried. The typical non-Jewish, US American viewer is never guilty or persecuted in the “real history” they perceive. The “revenge” is voyeurism; we watch Jewish-Americans get the vengeance we imagine they desire.

“We” includes us all–white, Jewish, black, good.

“Django” is different as a concept because the history is different. As the LA Times piece does well to convey, we all continue to live with the legacy of this history. In short, it isn’t “past” (or hasn’t “passed”) yet.

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But the vengeance is also different here. While the film mirrors “Bastards” by putting a liberated slave in the position of power, the vengeance he seeks is really for whites.

The typical white, US American viewer needs to seek revenge in this historical scenario because s/he does not yet (even now!) know how to seek and earn atonement. Slavery is not only a continuing historical force for the generations of African Americans who live in its wake, but it is also a continuing force structuring white lives and white possibilities. We often think that if we had lived in the past we would have been different than them, for whichever messy historical topic. Unfortunately, that is not so. One of the reasons “we” desire this is to think more of ourselves. (“I am not racist.”) One of the reasons “we” can not achieve this is that “we” are complicit in the continuing legacy of this past.

“We” is really, white US American.

I often tell students, the notion of “evil” is a complicated concept historically. For one, I’m not sure it is measurable since it’s a normative judgement. If you can’t “prove” evil with historical documents then I’m not sure it has much use.

The other reason it isn’t fruitful, critical terrain is that it removes context from human actions. If we say white slaveowners were “evil” we answer who and why they were. Our need for explanation is done. The historical question, however, is how can a person become that? What shaped their worldview so as to make them into a person I find so objectionable? The answers we find when we ask those historical questions tell us as much about the past as they do the present.

“Django Unchained” puts the white slaveowner in the position of “evil.” It allows the white, US American viewer to distance themselves from the possibility that this “evil” icon could have been them. It liberates whites from the position of guilt by allowing them, now, to side with the slave.

The tragedy of race and US history is that this “evil” of slaveowner and slavery defender was you. As much as I am sure future generations will find your moral and (in)humanistic decisions unfathomable for their times, you/we are all part of the past because we have been the engine that sustains it into this present.

An honest reckoning with the past is the pathway to dismantling its negative force in the present. We have to know the past to do that. We need to build critical empathy to do that. We need to contend with the ignorance of our past actions unwittingly sustaining the pain of the past into our present and learn how to make intentional steps forward for a different future.

I’m not sure an ahistorical revenge film on slavery could ever do that.

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Elvis, the dinosaur

You can learn a lot from kids. Not just from watching and observing them, but also from watching and observing their cartoons. Today, while watching “Dinosaur Train” with the kiddos, I learned about Cryolophosaurus.

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Up until fairly recently, dinosaur fossils had been discovered on every single continent, except Antartica. All that changed in 1986 with the discovery of what came to be known as Antarctopelta. Five years later, paleontologists discovered Cryolophosaurus.

Why do I need to share? Well, the Cryolophosaurus has a large kind of wave on its head. Scientists thought it loosely resembled the pompadour of famed singer Elvis Presley. And so, they informally called the mighty carnivorous beast the “Elvisaurus.”

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I should mention that this not only makes me smile because of my love for Elvis, but also for the fact that this odd associating of this dinosaur’s “plume” with the King occurred in the 1990s. After all, they could have just as easily named it the “Dylan-McKay-asaurus,” too.

My 15 Favorite Albums

Last week, my friend Steven Rubio wrote about his 15 favorite albums on his blog. I couldn’t stop thinking about what my own list would contain. Like one of his other readers, the number 15 made it interesting for me. So did the “favorite” adjective rather than the worn-out “best.”

I actually started typing out my list as a comment to his post twice and then deleted it. What I discovered is that I think I needed some imaginary context to do it right. Were these the only 15 albums I could have if I were trapped on a deserted island? (With a solar-powered CD player, of course.) Were these my favorites based on my life? Were these my current favorites?

I decided to plunk down my list here (sorry Steven) so that I could share with a little more detail. This is my list of “My 15 Favorite Albums” or “The 15 Albums I Rarely Grow Tired of Listening To.”

I should add that this has been the case for each of these albums for a substantial period during my adult life and that there’s a healthy bit of nostalgia behind each choice. For example, one of the albums meant a lot to me for a period in life but today I rarely listen to it. At the same time this nostalgia is only for when I thought of myself as “grown up.” When I was 13 I could listen to Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet” for days on end. It, however, never threatened to make the list.

Presented in a largely random order…

1. Elvis Presley: Elvis Presley As Recorded at Madison Square Garden. One of the things I love about Elvis is the brilliance mixed with the tragedy. His ’68 “comeback special” might be one of the best nights of recorded music I have ever enjoyed, but its him at a peak. His ’72 performances at the Garden reveal a King in full control of his performance abilities yet, at the same time, he is starting to give them to us in a poster board cut-out version of himself. I love the transition; plus, it’s the year I was born.

2. Albert King: Wednesday Night in San Francisco. This choice probably says a lot about how I approached this list. This is a posthumous album of left overs from a 1968 stint at SF’s Filmore where the best stuff was released as Live Wire/Blues Power. Even I wouldn’t say it’s his best live album. But I love it more than all the others.

3. The Who: Who’s Next. Massive love for the sound and the intensity, it contains my most favorite song by them.

4. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue. This album is like a good book to me. I discover things in it every time I listen. It places me in a time I never lived in but know from my work.

5. Sting: Soul Cages. This is a pensive and emotional work of art that hit me at a point in life where I was trying to be artistic and was successfully very pensive and emotional.

6. The Beatles: Abbey Road. You can tell my love for the tragic by my belief that this is their best album. Rationally, I think it might be really George Martin’s best.

7. Van Morrison: The Best of Van Morrison. I have a fondness for this collection that is specific to my life, which makes me pick it over the more critically established Astral Weeks. I will say I love his earlier stuff and even his adult contemporary later stuff enough that makes this a better album for me.

8. Tom Waits: Bone Machine. If this list were in order of preference, this might be at the very top. His lyrics and his music are at one of their many peaks in this recording. I came to love music the way that I do thanks, in some large part, to this man and this album.

9. Al Green: I’m Still in Love With You. Smooth and sexually potent.

10. Big Mama Thorton: Jail. I love her live stuff best, and her later voice most. This satisfies me on both counts.

11. Derek and the Dominos: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Only one album from this super group and it is a guitar gem. I love the hybridity of blues and rock.

12. B.B. King: Live at the Regal. It features B.B. King. Live. At the Regal.

13. Bob Marley: Legend. The greatest hits album to end all greatest hits albums, some of his best songs–better than 99% of all recorded music–still don’t make the cut for this collection.

14. Jeff Buckley: Grace. When I hear it I feel like I am breathing in the 1990s.

15. Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend. This album is too useful, for whatever your emotional state or condition, for me not to include. He is my favorite soul performer of the pre-1970s. One of the greatest voices who ever lived.

Being Human in Tragedy

I don’t want to say anything about today’s events. Not specifically, anyway. I feel about them much the same way that you do, and that others do as well.

I do think its important for us to think about mental health. As a parent of three kids–aged 7, 5, and 2,–I know that my wife and I will be having conversations with the oldest (at least) to help him develop the kinds of skills we all need to grapple with and process these kinds of tragedies. Those conversations will be about us feeling our way through, trying to provide for his mental and emotional and intellectual health.

But we live in a nation where everyone doesn’t have a mom who is a trained social worker and a dad who is a PhD. We live in a nation where everyone doesn’t have access to equitable health care. We live in a nation that still struggles with providing for basic mental health care. In fact, we have little sense about what being “mentally healthy” even means.

The way we engage news like this–with a kind of “violence and suffering voyeurism”–is a signal of how inept we are at understanding mental heath issues. This kind of sensationalism promotes acts of violence and suffering from those who are already mental unhealthy. A focus on body count, on the killer, on the pain of others, all of it does little to promote anything mentally healthy.

What this coverage does is satisfy a media goal to make you feel the pain of experiencing these events as if you were more locally involved. That gets ratings because that hooks us a viewers. It turns a story about “them” into a story about “us.” That makes us grieve with the suffering, and grieving promotes our desire to connect more–to watch more news, to find out more, to talk about it more, to share about more on Twitter and Facebook. Our fixation on empathetic grief does damage to our own mental health.

I feel for others’ and the pain and sorrow they experience. I feel for the families that were shattered today. I feel for the kids–all of them–who have to confront this horror in so many different ways. But I don’t want to wallow in it.

I am a professional historian who studies groups of people that have lived through the physical, mental, and spiritual violence of systemic racism. On an almost daily basis, I practice my kind of empathy in the study of the human past. But I never let the empathy overwhelm me. I don’t let that human connection represent the end point to my study of history. I also know that the “feeling” of emotions is a wasted source of energy if we do nothing other than cry with it. It needs to be the first step in ACTION.

The long, national discussion over gun control will continue. I hope it also includes a new national discussion on mental health. I am in favor of tighter regulations when it comes to firearms in the US. But I also don’t think that will stop things like this from happening by themselves.

As a nation, we have spent almost my entire life slashing mental health services for the poor and most at risk. At the same time we have created a market-based form of social organization that means the numbers of at risk will grow. We have nearly perfected a system that assures many will go undiagnosed, untreated, and uncared for until it is too late.

We need to do something about promoting and sustaining mental health. We need to do something about providing more services for those who do not have full mental health. We need to do more, as a nation, to create lived realities where people can be full, healthy human beings.

“The Chronic” turns 20

On December 15, 1992, Dr. Dre released his solo debut album “The Chronic.” Dre was already a well-known figure in rap and hip-hop from his days as part of the LA group N.W.A. The success of his 1992 solo endeavor (which featured multiple other rappers, including Dre protégé Snoop Dog) made him a legend.

I don’t have much to say about the significance of the album or the creative impact it had on the future of hip hop. That’s been done for the last twenty years by critics far more skilled than me. For me, as a Gen X Chicano living in southern California at the time, the album held some personal significance.

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I’ve never been a huge rap fan. (At least I’ve never put the music first on my list of musical loves.) But it’s always been a part of my musical life. As a young person of color coming of age in the 80s, a person who felt like he came from a world that was not recognized (or even known) by the mainstream, early hip hop represented that “subjectivity” authentically. Songs by N.W.A. (and everybody from Grandmaster Flash to L.L. Cool J to Doug E. Fresh to Run DMC) and others connected my Chicano-dominated, multiracial cultural world to the Black American cultural world. As it did, it also kind of legitimated it.  The music became the soundtrack of  large part of my social life.

But for me, “The Chronic” wasn’t just another album that provided background to life, it also exists in my mind as something more. The album felt like it ended the specific comfort that genre of music gave me. I remember it as an album that moved the entire world of hip hop firmly into the mainstream. I’m sure this is an overstatement that has a lot to do where I was in my life at the time (in a “white” college struggling to find my place in the world). But I remember feeling that “The Chronic” made rap part of “American music.”

Maybe it was me that was changing more than hip hop. “The Chronic” was the soundtrack to a particular time in my life, a time of transition, a time of crossing into a mainstream and hybrid world.

Twenty years ago I was 20 years old. I send and received my first emails. I had long hair, and wore a leather jacket. I spent countless precious evenings with dear friends, all of us growing up in a cloud of Camel cigarettes and a mix of Bud Light and Henry Weinhard’s. And I remember this like it was yesterday: