The City is a Monument

washington dc is a great city

Washington DC is a great city because it’s 61 square miles of roots & routes. I was there last week, losing myself in the roots and tangling myself in the routes. We all know what happened last week– the 2nd inauguration of the 1st black president on the holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Poetic. Justice.

Since that’s the one you probably guessed first, I’ll start with it. Martin Luther King Jr. is obviously part of the root system that allowed Barack Obama to be President of the United States of America. But here’s the thing about roots & routes, and why I’m fascinated by the concept: One person’s route is someone else’s root.

We celebrate the legacy of MLK, and consider his work to be foundational. But for his contemporaries, MLK represented the future. He literally put folks in route to make this country better. The same will be true for BO. Now he’s leading the nation on our current path, hopefully a new path, but someday he will be history the way DC is history.

Washington DC wears the nation’s past like medals on an officer’s coat. The city is a monument. Even restaurants are museums, like Busboys and Poets or Eatonville, where waiters take the time to give you a history lesson on Zora Neale Hurston. Eatonville! What a perfect name for a restaurant, period. But when it’s also the name of ZNH’s hometown in Florida, that’s just the universe cracking a smile. When I saw the restaurant, I teared up and put my hand over my heart like actors do in those melodramatic movie scenes. Roots & Routes is the racially eclectic clientele of a minority owned business built to honor Zora Neale Hurston’s legacy.

And then, there’s the METRO. Operating since March 1976, the DC metro currently has 106.3 miles of track on which trains travel a max speed of 59 mph. It has 86 subway and surface stations and a rainbow of five lines: red, orange, yellow, green, and blue. The people, of course, are just as colorful.

For a rail fan like myself, the Metro is transcendent. What can I say? I’m transported. Where I’m going isn’t as important as the act of going. I slice through the seem of time and space. The sheer motion is entrancing. The one tragedy is that it doesn’t go on forever. It always eventually comes to a full stop.

George Wallace Gov. of Segregation: Does he Get his Wish?

Jan. 14 1963, George Wallace was sworn in as the Governor of Alabama with the vile cry, I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation for ever.”

The 50 yr anniversary of that damnable speech comes the day before Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (read my post tomorrow, Tues. Jan. 15.) and exactly one week before the second inauguration of the nation’s first African American President, which happens to fall on the MLK holiday this year (Mon. Jan. 21). That’s poetic justice.

In 1960, nine students from Southern University sat in at a segregated lunch counter at the Kress Building in Baton Rouge in protest of the segregation. They were arrested and expelled from school, but eventually took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court where they were represented by Thurgood Marshall. The court decided in the student’s favor.

The Kress Building, renovated in 2008, now features a high-end art gallery curated by a black artist from Baton Rouge, Christopher Turner. On Jan. 18, 2013, the gallery will host an opening for “History & Innovation,” an exhibit featuring four African American artists living in Baton Rouge.

Beautiful.

But what is segregation? Why did the use of and access to places & spaces became such a pillar of racism?

Space, how much of it you take and how much of it you believe you’re entitled to, is a physical expression of your power, practical and perceived. 

Practical power refers to what you can do in the world, like vote, make purchases, sit in a seat, enter through a door, apply for a job, hold an office, or eat in a dining area.  Perceived power refers to how much power you feel or believe you have. It can also refer to other people’s perception of you based on how you position yourself in spaces.

The most powerful kings had the most land. The most powerful empires took up the most space on the map. Rich people’s homes take up way more space than poor people’s homes. Confident men tend to spread their legs and stretch their arms. Insecure men tend to hunch and keep their arms closer to their bodies. People often express power by invading someone else’s personal space.

For people like George Wallace, segregation was literally the way to make sure blacks stayed in their place so that whites could stay in their place of power.

Space is also about inside and outside, both physically and socially.

Segregation emphasizes the social part. After slavery, segregation was used to continue denying blacks entry into full American citizenship. The institutionalized separation of races perpetuates the belief that race is the ultimate characteristic for determining who is “one of us.”

Why talk about segregation now?

The same power play of space is still present in our everyday, micro experiences.

A few of my fourteen year old 9th graders asked why we had to talk about Civil Rights since it was “in the past.” They never asked that question when learning about history in general because such a question is really a way to avoid the sensitive topic of race. It’s not a genuine inquiry into the relevance of history, a relevance which always seems apparent for every other historical topic.

Well, much of our country is still segregated, even in our holier-than-thou states like California. That makes me wonder if George Wallace’s wish came true in some ways.

The fact that overt segregation based on race is now illegal, makes the persistence of segregation even more disturbing and troubling. It was one thing when the law said multiple races could not occupy the same classroom. But now that the law is reversed, and we still see tons of mono-racial classrooms across this nation, it’s clear that even if we’ve done away with the old laws, we’ve not done away with the old social structure.

Some of us are trying to dismantle it. Others are trying to preserve it.

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Zora Neale Hurston Born and Read

At 16, I met Zora Neale Hurston. I tucked her inside like a sterling silver pendant worn close to my heart. Her spirit traversed through decades and the bedlam of high school to appear on my desk in the form of an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road.

This was the time in my life when I wanted to go, go, go. Zora’s words beckoned me to follow her lead:

My vagrancy had begun in reality. I knew that. There was an end to my journey and it had happiness in it for me. It was certain and sure. But the way! Its agony was equally certain. It was before me, and no one could spare me my pilgrimage. The rod of compelment was laid to my back. I must go the way. 

Zora Neale Hurston is a Daughter of the Dustleaving tracks along the many routes she’s traveled, always moving on but leaving imprints of where she comes from. Perhaps my obsession with roots & routes started there, within the pages of Zora’s book. I walk miles through her language, like the journey from a blank screen into the unknown stories we’re meant to tell.

Zora Neale Hurston

A year later, Zora and I reacquainted, this time in a novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

She was sixteen. She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her. Where were the singing bees for her? Nothing on the place nor in her grandma’s house answered her. She searched as much of the world as she could from the top of the front steps and then went on down to the front gate and leaned over to gaze up and down the road. Looking, waiting, breathing short impatience. Waiting for the world to be made.

What artistry! How could a high school girl not be enchanted by such voodoo?

Though I fell in love in high school, it wasn’t until I changed my major from architecture to English midway through undergrad that I began to study Zora Neale Hurston’s text. Her depiction of a character’s emotional state and world view through their location in the scene. Geography is not only a metaphor depicting ideology, but the concrete manifestation of ideology. She tells the story of her time and her people with poetic prose.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

She enriched her work with anthropological research and publications on African American folklore. All of her writing celebrates the legacies crafted by blacks out of their environments, memories, and dreams. No matter how far she ascended into the Harlem Renaissance elite, or how much she traveled, she never distanced herself from those cultural roots. Rather, her travels brought her deeper, closer to them.

Beyond 1891, Zora Neale Husrton continues to be born and read, alive even today.

In honor of Zora’s birthday today, Jan. 7, I invite you to share what you know and love about her in the comments below or on Facebook.

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Django Unchained: Roots & Routes

Half a dozen black men in shackles, with festering welts on their backs, shuffling across a barren landscape, herded by two white men on horseback with guns.

A note that says we’re “somewhere in Texas,” and opening credits in tacky, red font.

Roberto Fia’s voice crooning the twangy, but Italian, theme song from the original 60’s version of Django.

The scene changes to a dark, cold night.

When the music stops, there’s nothing but the loud pulse of clinking chains.

From beginning to end, the moving images convey movement, transport, travel, journey, evolution, escape, venturing off into expansive, unknown landscapes and into unknown futures.

Sometimes the movement is solemn, ugly, and industrial. Shackled feet trudging through thick mud. A human conveyor belt with no visible beginning or end.

Then there’s the stoic odyssey through snow, across deserts, and eventually into the deep south.

Django Unchained is steeped in the symbolism of roots & routes.

Western Genre

This film was inspired by the classic, American film genre of the western, which features the classic American hero of the cowboy.

The title of Django Unchained and the plot to rescue a stolen love, are remixes of the original 1966 western, Django, by Sergio Corbucci, which has had a few sequels over the years.

The actor who played Django in 1966, Franco Nero, actually makes a significant cameo in Django Unchained in that infamous scene when Django spells his name and explains, “The D is silent.” Nero’s character simply replies, “I know.”

That scene is merely one display, I believe, of the fact that this was not just a whim for Tarantino. He grew up watching westerns the way I grew up reading Nikki Giovanni and Langston Hughes. It’s quite possible that watching those movies as a boy inspired Tarantino to make films in the first place.

Like any inspired artist, he’s not just remixing the old; he’s paying homage to the artists and the work that preceded him and keeping it alive for younger generations to appreciate.

The nod to westerns of old is the roots of this film. The remix is the routes.

Tarantino essentially says, here’s what my predecessors have done, and here’s how I can build on that, moving forward with a vision that’s all my own.

I love the intentional allusion to history in any type of work, and the will to perpetuate the evolution for a contemporary context.

Here’s how Tarantino explains the roots & routes (my term) of his own film:

Technically it’s a southern, done in the style of the western. The way we think of westerns, the characters go on a western odyssey. We start with our characters in Texas, to give everybody a sense of the familiar. And then we start moving toward where the cotton is. 

Southern Setting

Imagine pure, bright, white cotton . . .

Growing in tailored rows in a large field.

Can you see it?

The soft, billowy, fluff of a flower.

Now see it gushed with red drops of blood.

That’s one of my favorite images from Django Unchained.

And the ubiquitous presence of roads. Seems like every other scene features Django riding horseback through the streets of a town or down long stretches of country roads

Roads clearly symbolize roots & routes. They’re solely meant to facilitate transportation. On roads, we leave one place and travel to another.

With that physical movement, we occasionally experience a spiritual movement― a new start, a sense of freedom, or return for a reckoning, all aptly applied to Django Unchained.

I also feel particularly connected to this film because it was shot on an actual plantation in Louisiana. No Hollywood, replica set here.

Regardless of where they live now, many people who watch Django Unchained have Southern roots. Their ancestors routed to other regions of the American countryside, possibly experiencing their own type of real life western.

And of course, all Americans, not just southerners, share deep roots in American slavery.

Context of Slavery

How do you go all the way back to allow the ghosts of slaves or ancestors to speak through you? Jamie Foxx

Slavery sparks much debate about Django Unchained, controversy that enticed me to see it even more!

The roots & routes of slavery are parallel tracks in this film.

We get the typical slave narrative woven throughout: lowered eyes, quivering voices, the crack of whips, black mistresses, hungry hounds, lavish power and wealth, phrenology, and the overall social order of the day.

Simultaneously on the screen with those images is a former slave who looks white men in the eyes, talks assertively to them, turns the whip on them, and calls them BOY.

The route from slavery is that a time will has come when a black man doesn’t have to sit by, powerless and unable to protect his black wife while she’s captured, sold, beaten, and raped.

This is bigger than an escape route. The black man doesn’t just escape from this group of slave owners; he defeats them.

Like Django, the audience must journey into the South and into the past to confront evil and reclaim what’s ours, which I think is ultimately pride.

I say pride, because of the evolution of one, minor character, depicted solely by his facial expressions. (I’ll let you watch the film to catch that cue.)

There’s so much more to say, but my self-imposed word count has dwindled, and despite the fact that it’s become one of my new favorites, I’m simply not inclined to write more than one post on this movie.

My first attempt at writing about it approached the length of a graduate thesis. Here’s what my subheadings were for the original post:

  • audience
  • cast & crew
  • colorism
  • directors
  • genre
  • the German
  • humor
  • location
  • love
    • male & female
    • self-love
  • masculinity
  • the *N* word
  • slavery
  • soundtrack
  • violence
    • against blacks
    • against whites
  • women

Seeing as how I didn’t want to spend all of 2013 writing about this one film, I scrapped that draft and tried two more times. Even though I saw so much in the film, I had to choose the path that beckoned me the most.

I’m sure you have thoughts. Share them in the comments.

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