"...not all of the presidents were douchebags?" The more I read, the less sure I am about that statement. Here's three fun facts that you probably haven't considered today -- facts that have changed the way I think of many of our presidents. Something to mull over while you run to catch that white sale at the mall.
Twelve of our presidents -- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant -- owned slaves. Eight of them owned slaves while serving as president.
Of all the dead presidents in your wallet -- Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, Grant and Franklin -- Lincoln is the only one that did not own any slaves. Is it any wonder that ex-slaves wanted to honor Lincoln when you hear quotes like this from him?“I have always thought that all men should be free; but if any should be slaves it should be first those who desire it for themselves, and secondly those who desire it for others. Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” (1865)
According to some sources, Obama is not our first African-American president. There are six presidents that preceded him who are said to have both European and African ancestry. According to the US government (and of course the one drop rule), that's enough to make them legally black. (Trust me -- there were plenty of folk who got harassed, beat down and lynched over that one drop. It matters, then and now.) Who are they? Thomas Jefferson (really?), Andrew Jackson (he was probably bipolar, too -- what a violent nutjob), Abraham Lincoln (no wonder he was so anti-slavery), Warren Harding (everyone knows this one, don't they?), Dwight Eisenhower (surprise! his momma looks like she could be one of my cousins!) and Calvin Coolidge (i didn't know about this one).
Tonight I'll be singing in a Billie Holiday tribute at The Rum House (helmed by the cocktail slingers behind Ward III in Tribeca) with a trio led by Grammy award-nominated songwriter/pianist JC Hopkins. I'm in the process of developing a libretto that includes Lady Day's rarer sides from the 30s, so this gig is a fine moment to stretch out on some of that material before I present my work at The Apollo Theater Soundstage for the residency/performances in April.
I think The Rum House having a Bespoke Music Series seasonally is the hotness. They are the songs that you love and hardly ever get to hear live - and when you do, it's most definitely not as intimate as this. This place is so tiny, I'll practically be sitting in your lap with you holding my mic.
There is NO COVER for this gig - though I'm sure a hat of some sort will be passed through the crowd - in one of the hottest little "speakeasy" bars in midtown.
Here's the official blurb:
JC Hopkins leads a Bespoke tribute to the one and only Lady Day. Hosted by Jonny Porkpie, featuring JC on piano, Wayne Tucker trumpet, Dylan Shamatt bass, and vocalists Queen Esther, Dana Danger Athens, Cyrille Aimee, Wyndham Baird, Kiki Valentine and Sarah Elizabeth Charles.
i'm feeling especially grateful for my creative life -- all of it. i have no idea why this feeling of gratitude has covered me like a strange dark shroud. the epiphany that unfurled itself inside me the other day probably has everything to do with it. for some strange reason, that simple thought and all of what it really meant rattled me all the way to my bones. i'd certainly had that thought before but this time, it carried a weight to it that made it so profound, so overwhelming. all of a sudden, everything seemed divinely ordered. all of a sudden, in one bright moment, everything made perfect sense.
i realized that i didn't choose to be an artist. my early years were a series of happy accidents and strange coincidences and "lucky" moments that made me aware of a knowing feeling that grew inside me, a feeling that constantly reassured me that i am who i am -- an artist -- and that's all that i am, no matter what. my only real choice meant coming to terms with this information and deciding what to do with my life.
my most productive and satisfying moments came when i got out of the way and let God take over and give me whatever ideas i was meant to have. that's the way its always worked for me. i get out of the way and have a kind of blackout while inspiration takes over and works through me to make something wonderful. very stanislavski. actually, it was through method acting in performing arts high school that i learned how to get out of the way. more on that later.
when i first came to new york city, a beautiful dancer -- one of those stunning ailey acolytes, i think -- told me that it was a sin to have a God-given talent and do nothing with it. she said it in passing. it was almost an afterthought. i never forgot those words. in my darker more mundane moments, when i was working and working and working and (seemingly) not getting anywhere with what i was doing, those words would float back to me and drift just above my head, like a smoke ring. and i would keep going and then a breakthrough would sail into my life with so much ease, it would leave me breathless.
now i know that although mr. vonnegut was wrong -- you can make a living in the arts -- he was also so very right: every human being has a grand capacity for creativity and art. it can augment all of our lives and make them better, and make life much more bearable. so many apply their bright ideas to the most mundane parts of their world and illuminate them with ingenuity and verve, leaving light and love in their wake.
i'm not talking about haberdashers who use their albums and music videos and their ability to "beef" and start static to shill their clothing lines, alcoholic beverages and energy drinks. i'm not talking about fashion victims or fame junkies. i'm not talking about corporate tools or media whores.
i'm talking about creativity in its purest most elegant and accessible form -- something that we all have within our grasp as human beings. something that is there to give you joy within the confines of your everyday world. something that you can take further than that, if you feel so inclined. something that connects you to the divine in such a deliberate way, it's almost stultifying.
more and more it feels as though the only time we have a moment to talk about our history collectively as a nation is during the month of february when there is an overwhelming amount of information, events, movies and more, specifically about us. by focusing on who we are and what we've accomplished and what happened, everybody else subconsciously begins to ask those questions about themselves. we all end up with a fat albertteachable moment of some sort. who knows? we all might learn something before its done.
what's especially painful is knowing that for many of us, this is all the black history we get - they don't teach it in schools because according to some, there's no time to include it in the curriculum. this should be an ongoing conversation. there's way too many of us that just don't know.
i'm the kind of negress that celebrates my blackness all the time, so when february happens along, its not that deep in my world. for me, every day is black history month. i'm always reading biographies, watching the history channel, doing research, learning something new. this is probably because my mother taught me to read when i was three years old. by the time i hit kindergarten, i was so far ahead of the other students that the teachers would leave me in the library each afternoon, to read at my leisure. all the little munchkins who could hardly spell would wonder what i was doing over there amongst the big kids and the adults. i knew from an early age that if i wanted to know anything, i'd have to find out for myself. the teacher had neither the time nor the inclination to dwell on subjects that held my interest. needless to say, my questions were completely off topic, complex, annoying and ultimately disruptive.
ah, public school.
as it turns out, my vocation suits me completely. for an actor -- a good one, anyway -- a library card is your friend. everything is research. everything.
if you don't have a lot of money to throw around and you'd like to celebrate black history month from your couch, there's plenty to watch on television. i think (well-researched) documentaries are a great way to learn about anything. the unfortunate truth is, what's on television and what's at the movies is the way most people learn about a lot of things. you want to change the world? get on television.
there are quite a few interesting documentaries that are up for grabs on public television -- so many that it makes me wonder if they'd get this kind of attention if it weren't black history month. here's highlights of a few of my favorites. (check pbs for details.)
this one breaks my heart: being pavarotti. in it, a 13 year old boy from a shantytown in south africa is given pavarotti's version o solo mio and decides that he wants to be an opera singer.
produced by the national black programming consortium (NBPC), distributed by american public television (APT), and supported by funding from the national endowment for the arts, and the corporation for public broadcasting. afro-pop: the ultimate cultural exchangepresents the south african documentaryhip-hop revolution by female director weaam williams.
now this is the documentary i'd make on this topic - more than a month questions the very idea of black history month and makes a quite few interesting points along the way.
slavery by another name delves into what really happened to the slaves after emancipation. i'm pretty sure this one is going to break me but if you really want to lose it, check out the book worse than slavery: parchman farm and the ordeal of jim crow justice by david m. oshinsky. there were moments when i had to put that book down for days at a time because it was so overwhelming.
the making of the documentary slavery by another name -- a behind-the-scenes look. always fascinating, to glimpse how they put it all together.
the must-see american masters documentary cab calloway: sketches almost never was -- it was financed entirely by the french, with no american assistance whatsoever. may the world never forget how truly brilliant mr. calloway was -- as a bandleader, jazz vocalist and actor.
i think it's important to make every effort to see our icons as people. it's always the same quotes, the same figureheads, the same perspective -- and that gets especially annoying each february -- so here's something completely different. i've never heard dr. martin luther king preach an entire sermon so i thought i'd post this one.
he gave this sermon at atlanta's ebenezer baptist church in november of 1967. the title but if not comes from daniel 3:18 in the story of shadrach, meshach, and abed-nego.
how is it possible that i have two closets filled with clothes and absolutely nothing to wear?
it's moments like these when i wish i could get rid of everything -- except my vintage clothes, of course. i've found every dress, every skirt, very very carefully. each item has a story to tell and a history that happened way before i came along, which is important. the past comes alive all around us, all the time -- even if it's within something as simple as what we wear.
according to tim gunn, it's a good idea to edit your closet seasonally but when i can't remember the last time i tossed anything out or at least made a serious donation to the salvation army, i know i'm in big trouble. this week will find me making the tax-deductible drop offs i should have pushed for in december. and it won't be pretty.
"If you're not enraged by the end of the movie, you weren't paying attention." -- Mary and Richard Corliss, TIME
on february 11 and 12, move on members nationwide are having viewing parties for the controversial academy award winning movie inside job. great idea. nothing like a scathing, well-researched, quick-paced, award-winning documentary to get educated about what's really going on in the political world. this is the one that explains the $20 trillion dollar global financial crisis of 2008 in a straightforward, uncomplicated way, and names the politicians and wall street executives who were responsible for it.
i've been meaning to see this one for awhile now -- essential viewing for anyone who wants to delve into the anatomy of what in the world happened.
here's a quick summary:
'Inside Job' provides a comprehensive analysis of the global financial crisis of 2008, which at a cost over $20 trillion, caused millions of people to lose their jobs and homes in the worst recession since the Great Depression, and nearly resulted in a global financial collapse. Through exhaustive research and extensive interviews with key financial insiders, politicians, journalists, and academics, the film traces the rise of a rogue industry which has corrupted politics, regulation, and academia. It was made on location in the United States, Iceland, England, France, Singapore, and China.
here's an interesting interview on cnn with director charles ferguson.
if you'd like to host your own inside job viewing party via moveon.org, click here. if you'd like to see it via netflix, click here. if you'd like to see it online for free, click here. whatever you do, see this movie.
the third season of nbc's who do you think you are? starts on february 3. i don't know who thought this show up, but it's a great idea. it's important to remember that immigration has always been a hot topic in this country. someone has always stood at the gate -- not native to this land, of course -- eager to decide who can and can't be a citizen of this country, spouting the kind of hate speech that sounds awfully familiar nowadays.
case in point?
benjamin franklin -- a beloved founding father if there ever was one -- couldn't stand germans. he thought they were too stupid to learn english. (sound familiar?)
here's where he really sticks his foot in it: "Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation…and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain…"
he also didn't like their "swarthy complexions" which he felt were an affront to the "purely white people" who originally settled america.
here's another tasty morsel: Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.
what's especially sticky is that anglo saxons are descendants of northern and southern europe because really, everyone invaded the uk. the normans. those swarthy romans! the vikings. everyone. the irony is that before those invasions, germanic people migrated there in the 5th and 6th century. underneath it all, ben franklin is, well, german. but nevermind that -- here's where he really goes whole hog.
"(#24) Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind."
in other words, ben franklin thought that america should be a white land for anglo-saxons -- the right kind (according to him, the only kind) of white people.
nice to know that this little butterball -- author, scientist, inventor, musician, political theorist, diplomat, newspaperman and yes, international celebrity -- was also such a virulent and committed racist. i don't get it. he invented the first lending library. he was our first postmaster general. the started the nation's first fire department. he dropped out of school at the age of six so clearly, he was a genius -- and yet, his ignorance was (and still is) nothing short of breathtaking.
here's the kicker that's probably got poor richard spinning in his grave like a whirling dervish right about now: german-americans are roughly 20% of the population. they are the largest group of immigrants in this country. not wasps, not the scotch-irish. and no, not mexicans. germans. something to think about, the next time you wake up and put in your bausch & lomb contact lenses, put on a pair of levis, send your child to kindergarten (where they'll probably read a dr. seuss book) put up your christmas tree and sing o tannenbaum, grab a hamburger or a hot dog (with sauerkraut!), crack open a pabst (or just about any other domestic american beer you can think of) at happy hour, and go see johnny depp, peter dinklage, ben affleck, bruce willis, hillary duff, sandra bullock, leonardo dicaprio or meryl streep and a long, long list of other german-american actors star in their latest flick.
this country isn't a melting pot, with all of us melding into each other to eventually become one beige patch of racially ambiguous wonderment. (ew.) it's a salad, with each individual bringing their own unique flavor to the mix, and hopefully augmenting what's there and somehow making the world a better place. we should all know we are. we should all know our roots -- and be proud of them.
it's nice that the show who do you think you are? is so inclusive of everyone's ancestry. they can't go back to africa enough for me, in part because as the descendants of slaves, much of our records, documents, etc. have been lost or destroyed - if they were ever written down in the first place. for me, those stories are the most compelling because they are the ones that hardly ever get told. this is where a dna test can kick everything into overdrive. ah, technology. your blood will never lie.
that's why anyone that's a member of a registered hate group should be required to take a dna test by law. if they ever found out that they have african ancestry, they would probably implode with disgust. (heh.)
first of all, there were millions of people who were already here -- governing themselves, respecting the land and the animals in it, and living their lives as they saw fit.
secondly, the europeans who came to this country initially were not immigrants. they were colonists from the united kingdom and the netherlands. the last time i checked, a colonist (someone who relocates from one british territory to another) is not an immigrant (someone who transplants themselves from one nation to another).
"Put your hand on a stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with that special girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. That's relativity." - Albert Einstein
this month's nablopomo theme is relative - whatever that means. i'm always willing to blog without ceasing because like morning pages, it's such a wonderful creative trigger. something gets unhinged and new ideas erupt all over everything else i'm doing.