Once you learn to read you will be forever free - Frederick Douglass

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Afro-Nikkei, Nikkei-Afro

William Hohri was incarcerated at age 15 at Manzanar during WWII
The Obsessive Reader sends her condolences to the family of William Hohri, 83, who died on November 12. Mr. Hohri was a hero, a man of integrity and independence, who successfully fought the government which forced him into an internment camp, along with approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans, during WWII.  Mr. Hohri was a writer and author of Repairing America: An Account of the Movement for Japanese American Redress; Resistance, first-person accounts from the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee; the Lim Report, on WWII collaboration of Japanese American Citizens League leaders in their own words, and; Manzanar Rites, about the riot of internees.  Of course, Mr. Hohri is mainly known as a resistance supporter and the lead plaintiff in the National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR) class action lawsuit against the U.S. government for its crimes against internees.  Just months after his lawsuit was disallowed, President Reagan signed the law that led to redress.

The Obsessive Reader met Mr. Hohri through his daughter Sylvia in the 1990s.  One of my memories of him is when he graciously accepted an invitation to attend Holman United Methodist Church, mostly to hear a sermon by then-pastor, the legendary Rev. James Lawson, whom Hohri knew was an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., and a follower of Ghandi - indeed, Lawson, who spent more than a year starting in 1951 in Leavenworth federal prison as a Conscientious Objector, introduced King to Ghandian nonviolence and the practice of Satiyagraha.  Mr. Hohri participated in the civil rights movement of the 1960s; as a representative of his church he marched with James Meredith, protesting whites-only admissions at the University of Mississippi. .After Rev. Lawson's impassioned, intellectually challenging sermon in the large, affluent, well-appointed church, I had the pleasure and honor of introducing these two men, who had immersed their lives in service to social justice, to transform America.  In conversation with me afterwards, Mr. Hohri, the son of a Methodist minister himself, marveled at the all-black congregation, saying "Everybody should be hearing this."  It was a poignant moment, as I thought to myself of King's famous statement that "Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America."

Rev. James Lawson, civil rights activist
My memories of William Hohri and his family helped remind The Obsessive Reader that Japanese Americans and African Americans have a long history of interaction, especially in pursuit of social justice.  Here, The Obsessive Reader offers some examples from the past that have largely been left out of mainstream narratives.  

Langston Hughes

  • Beginning in 1943, African American attorney, Hugh MacBeth, Sr. defended Japanese American evacuees, counseled Nisei draft resisters, joined forces with ACLU and JACL lawyers, challenged laws discriminating against Japanese Americans and spoke out at public forums against internment.
Paul Robeson

In 1942, concert singer Paul Robeson accepted the invitation by sculptor Isamu Noguchi to join a blue-ribbon panel of prominent non-Asians to testify before Congress on  the loyalty of Japanese Americans to help prevent mass evacuation.  After the war, he gave concerts for the Japanese American Citizens League in Salt Lake City and Nisei veterans in Chicago, and worked with Nisei for Wallace to push the civil rights plank of the Progressive Party.
  • When internees returned to Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, which had become a black residential area during WWII housing shortages, Ebony magazine published an article“The Race War That Flopped: Little Tokyo and Bronzeville Upset Predictions of Negro-Nisei Battle” because both groups were able to overcome differences    with each other.
Manzanar National Historic Site
  • In 1952, the Japanese American Citizens League filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. the Board of Education, joining the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League and other organizations in urging that segregation in public educational institutions violates equal protection under the 14th Amendment.  
  • In the 1950s and 60s, the Nisei Progressives worked with black civil rights groups, supported United Farm Workers and the anti-Vietnam War effort and worked in multiracial coalitions on issues ranging from housing, education, jobs and immigration rights.  A founder of Nisei Progressives, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, pushed to establish Manzanar as a national historic park in 1992.
Yuri Kochiyama
  • Activist Yuri Kochiyama worked with the Harlem Parents Committee in the 1960s, was a member of Malcolm X's Organization of Afro-American Unity, and held a dying Malcolm in her arms when he was assassinated in New York.  Her work in defense of political prisoners includes support for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Richard Aoki
  • Richard Aoki became one of the first members of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California and rose to Field General of the BPP. Aoki, a U.S. Army Veteran, who died last year, was a student at UC Berkeley where he helped establish Asian American Studies.  He was an instructor, counselor and administrator at Merritt and Alameda Colleges.

The old Holiday Bowl, shuttered
  • In 2000, a coalition of mostly African Americans and Japanese Americans fought to preserve the Holiday Bowl bowling alley, a longtime social center founded by Japanese Americans in 1957 where whites, blacks and Asians mingled for decades. The bowling alley was torn down, but the restaurant has been preserved as a coffee shop.

Lastly, from poet Lawson Fusao Inada's autobiographical Legends from Camp,

Lawson Fusao Inada
[T]he music we most loved and played and used was Negro music. It was something we could share in common, like a "lingua franca" in our "colored" community. And in our distorted reality of aliens and alienation, it even felt like citizenship. It seemed so very American—"un-foreign," on "un-foreign" instruments--and the words it used were English. Not "across town" or "Hit Parade" English, perhaps, but nevertheless an English that, in its own way, did the job...

On this night...he's gone outside during intermission. It's cold, foggy, and he's leaning against the wall under a streetlight. No one else is around. Except for another person, a woman...After a while, in a hushed voice, he speaks: "Excuse me--but may I have your autograph?" Her face lights up as she smiles: "Why certainly, son! What’s your name?" He tells her, and she pronounces it, somewhat "sings" it, as she writes in the book. Then, still smiling, she looks him straight in the eye and says: "You were here last night." "Yes, I was, ma'am. I've been here all week."

And you might say he never left. And what she wrote in that book, was this:
For Lawson
Billie Holiday
And before he knew it, he was writing poetry.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dispatches From the Multicultural Edge

Jimi Hendrix 1942 - 1970
The other night the Obsessive Reader was driving home from work when her rush hour blues were dispelled by listening to a Pacifica Radio documentary on Jimi Hendrix.  The folks from the Pacifica Radio Archives had just uncovered a four-hour documentary on the boundary-shattering musician that had been hidden in the vaults and is now restored.
Named in 2003 by Rolling Stone magazine, "the greatest guitarist of all time," Hendrix never goes out of style.  Young people continue to discover him, just as imitators, acolytes, fellow guitarists and accomplished artists came to him while he was alive, to sit at his feet and learn, and after his death, to listen compulsively over and over, to his recordings.  And, it's important to consider Hendrix, too, not just as a poet of the guitar, but as a lyricist, too. 

The Obsessive Reader can remember a certain high school boyfriend with a life-sized poster of Hendrix on his bedroom ceiling, symbolizing the boyfriend's extreme adulation for the artist.  (How I - a teenaged Obsessive Reader - knew about the existence of the poster is another matter). The day in 1970 when Hendrix died from a drug overdose in London began as a grim, rainy morning infused with grief at the news of his death.   With eyes bleary from crying, the boyfriend arrived at school in a long, sweeping U.S. Army raincoat (the kind of military surplus gear popular with middle class kids during the Vietnam War).  A group of us huddled forlorn under the storm clouds, reluctant to go to class, incoherent with disbelief that the Voodoo Chile was gone, gone, gone.

Thanks, Pacifica Radio Archives, for restoring the Hendrix program and making it available to the public at a reasonable cost.

If you can just get your mind together
Then come on across to me
We'll hold hands and then we'll watch the sunrise
From the bottom of the sea 

                                     From "Are You Experienced?"

Ai  1947 - 2010
The Obsessive Reader was sad to hear that Ai Ogawa, a poet whose work I admire, died earlier this year.  The lack of value assigned to poetry in our culture was reflected by how hidden the news of her death was;  I found out by accident while doing some research.  

Ai - a professor at Oklahoma State University, published widely in literary journals, recipient of the National Book Award, American Book Award, the Lamont Poetry Award of the Academy of American Poets,  grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Bunting Fellowship Program at Radcliffe College and the National Endowment for the Arts - left behind a wonderful legacy of books.  Her poetry is nearly all written in the form of monologues by real historical figures or imaginary characters.  Her poetic vision has been called "fierce," "uncompromising" and "bleak." Her work ranges over the world;  she gave voice to murderous and desolate souls, a Nazi during "Kristallnacht," J. Edgar Hoover, Trotsky's assassin, the Atlanta child murderer, and ordinary Americans lost in sexual morass and racial traps, witnesses to wars, victims of economic greed, saints and psychotics.  There is humor, even glimpses of redemption in her poems, but, as Native American poet and musician, Joy Harjo wrote, Ai's "poems are frightening, but necessary."

the truth is always changing,
always shaped by the latest 
collective urge to destroy.
So I sit here,
gnawed down by the teeth
of my nightmares.
My soul, a wound that will not heal.
                            From "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer"

In musing about the lives and artistic contributions of poet Ai and musician Jimi Hendrix, out there on the edge, I realized that both claimed Native American ancestry, Ai said she was part Choctaw, Hendrix said he was part Cherokee. both refused to inhabit racial categories imposed by our limited culture.  

Ai was born Florence Anthony, the product of
"a scandalous affair" between her mother and a
Japanese man.  She changed her name to Ai Ogawa.
Ai means "love" in Japanese.

We will probably never know if Ai or Hendrix actually could count among their forbears members of American Indian tribes.  Besides, being "Indian" is not strictly a matter of genealogy, or what is crudely referred to as "blood."  More than anything, it's an issue of culture, belonging to a culture, having knowledge about that culture and respect for the heritage.  Scholar Henry Louis Gates wrote last year, 
That Cherokee Princess that family lore says is your great-great-grandmother most probably never existed. The sad truth is that the overwhelming percentage of African-American people have very little Native American ancestry in their DNA. ..Here are the facts: Only 5 percent of all black Americans have at least 12.5 percent Native American ancestry, the equivalent of at least one great-grandparent.
 Of course there are African Americans with Indian forebears, and American Indians with African ancestors.  That's how complicated America is.  But, as Gates put it, if black folks are interested in trying to understand their multicultural background, "seek the white man."  
African Americans...are a racially mixed or mulatto people—deeply and overwhelmingly so. Fact: Fully 58 percent of African-American people, according to geneticist Mark Shriver at Morehouse College, possess at least 12.5 percent European ancestry (again, the equivalent of that one great-grandparent)...In the ‘60s, we were fond of saying that we are an “African people.” Well, our DNA proclaims loudly that we are a European people, a multi-cultural people, a people black as well as white. You might think of us as an Afro-Mulatto people, our genes recombined in that test tube called slavery.
Hendrix's father, who raised him, 
changed his son's name from Johnny Allen
 to James Marshall Hendrix.  
One of his early stage names was "Jimmy James." 
Journalists and historians cite Jimi Hendrix' racial heritage as white, Cherokee and Mexican, as well as black. Ai, described her ancestral background as Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, African-American, Irish, Southern Cheyenne and Comanche.  In some ways, they are simply representative of so many who call themselves African American;  as the DNA experts discovered, and Gates above asserts, black folks are, by and large, a mixed people, a product of the New World, established, as it was, on the slave trade.  That's nothing new.  And it's evident throughout the New World, otherwise known as the Americas.  But in this particular part of the Americas, in the old U S of A., society has yet to wrap its head around the inherent multi-racialism of many so-called African Americans.  As Ai put it,
People whose concept of themselves is largely dependent on their racial identity and superiority feel threatened by a multiracial person…I wish I could say that race isn’t important. But it is...This is a fact which I have faced and must ultimately transcend. If this transcendence were less complex, less individual, it would lose its holiness.
I think what's most important about Ai and Jimi Hendrix is that they defied expectations imposed on African Americans; both refused to inhabit racial categories imposed by our limited culture.  As artists, they teach us that it's possible to move beyond the edge, speak in an original voice, and discover beauty in all its forms.  They show us that beauty as an aesthetic category isn't limited to what's pleasing or known;  it can be awful as well as awe-inspiring, it can shake you up, or appear alien.  What Ai and Hendrix seemed to know:  the possibilities of beauty are infinite.

As individuals and creators not easily defined in a society that likes its categories - especially racial categories - black, white and dumbed down, Ai and Jimi Hendrix were American artists, who in their lifetime and through their legacy could say with Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892) in Leaves of Grass
Every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you...
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself...
In all people I see myself...
I embody all presences outlaw’d or suffering...
I am large—I contain multitudes.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Not Just for Colored Girls

The Obsessive Reader will not be going to see the Tyler Perry movie of for colored girls who've considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf , not unless somebody force marches me in handcuffs.  The play's author, Ntozake Shange, has given her blessing to the Perry film, but that doesn't mean that I have to spend money on a production by somebody whose original colored girl was Madea.  Films from literature usually drive me to the original text, anyway, and I do strongly recommend the book - or a live performance - to the readers of this blog.  Let the movie - declares the Obsessive Reader - result in increased book sales for a redemptive, disturbing, innovative work of art.

for colored girls was - and is - an extraordinary literary phenomenon, what the New York Times recently called "a feminist war cry of a play," rooted in a time of widespread ferment, when women were asserting their voices in the chorus of discovery and pain expressed by those who were coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s.  Born in New Jersey, raised in St. Louis, educated at Barnard College, from a culturally astute black middle class home, Ntozake Shange found herself at the epicenter of the counterculture when she came to California to complete her Masters degree.  Talented, observant and sensitive, she dove like a fish into the waters of change.  Shange's minglings among musicians, dancers, poets and cultural revolutionaries in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles contributed to the birth in 1974 of her now famous choreopoem. 

What a lot of folks don't realize is how powerfully the feminist and lesbian movements contributed to the creation of Shange's play.   for colored girls was first performed in a lesbian bar (in most accounts it's called "a women's bar").  The Bacchanal on Solano Avenue in Albany, a tiny, upscale city between Berkeley and El Cerrito, California, was considered a "special place" for women patrons, offering poetry readings, visual arts exhibitions and performance art.  In her introduction to the for colored girls book, published in 1975, Shange herself writes:  
for colored girls who've considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf was first presented at the Bacchanal…With Paula Moss & Elvia Marta who worked with me in Raymond Sawyer’s Afro-American Dance Company & Halifu’s The Spirit of Dance;  Nashira Ntosha, a guitarist and program coordinator at KPOO-FM (one of the few Bay Area radio stations focusing on women’s programming);  Jessica Hagedorn, a poet and reading tour companion; & Joanna Griffin, co-founder of the Bacchanal, publisher of Effie’s Press, and a poet.  We just did it.

At the time for colored girls was being created, California was home to ground-breaking, alternative women's presses challenging mainstream biases.  Shameless Hussy Press founded in 1969 by poet Alta Gerry, published the first edition of  for colored girls who've considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.  Lesbian poet Judy Grahn, founder in 1969 of the Women's Press Collective, had a direct influence on or colored girls.  Again, in Shange's own words:
In the summer of 1974 I had begun a series of seven poems, modeled on Judy Grahn’s The Common Woman, which were to explore the realities of seven different kinds of women.
 The Common Woman is one of the most beautiful and enduring works of the time.  Judy Grahn says that she wrote all seven pieces in one night.  Shange wasn't alone in being influenced by this cycle of poems;  Grahn said in the book's preface:

All by themselves they went around the country. Spurred by the enthusiasm of women hungry for realistic pictures, they were reprinted hundreds of thousands of times, were put to music, danced, used to name various women's projects, quoted and then misquoted in a watered-down fashion for use on posters and T-shirts.
Virginia Woolf said, in A Room of One's Own, "a woman writing thinks back through her mothers." If you are thinking about seeing the movie, or contemplating picking up the book, or searching for a live performance, remember that for colored girls who've considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf  had among its literary mothers lesbians -  acknowledged by Shange - who helped give a voice to colored girls and common women alike.

For Colored Girls and Common Women

Daily News/ Linda Rosier photographer, October 31st 2010

In the spirit of my latest post, "Not Just for Colored Girls," the Obsessive Reader is pulling out of her Cultured Ghetto two poems.  The first is by Ntozake Shange, from "People of Watts."

          like the trails of freedom
the Good Lord himself lit up
we gonna take this
new city neon light
volumes for milliom to hear
to love themselves
enough to turn back the pulse of a whippin' history
make it carry the modern black melody from L.A.
to downtown Newark City
freedom buses
freedom riders
freedom is the way we walk that walk
talk that talk
gotta take that charred black body out the ground
switch on the current to a new sound
to a new way of walkin' a new way of talkin'
The next poem is by Judy Grahn, from her book, "The Common Woman," on which Shange based her idea for for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.

Famous Poets and Poems.com
Solemnly swearing, to swear as an oath to you
who have somehow gotten to be a pale old woman;
swearing, as if an oath could be wrapped around
your shoulders
like a new coat:
For your 28 dollars a week and the bastard boss
you never let yourself hate;
and the work, all the work you did at home
where you never got paid;
For your mouth that got thinner and thinner
until it disappeared as if you had choked on it,
watching the hard liquor break your fine husband down
into a dead joke.
For the strange mole, like a third eye
right in the middle of your forehead;
for your religion which insisted that people
are beautiful golden birds and must be preserved;
for your persistent nerve
and plain white talk --
the common woman is as common
as good bread
as common as when you couldnt go on
but did.
For all the world we didnt know we held in common
all along
the common woman is as common as the best of bread
and will rise
and will become strong -- I swear it to you
I swear it to you on my own head
I swear it to you on my common

Monday, November 8, 2010

Paris Benchmark

Toni Morrison in the French Ministry of Culture (AP/Camus)
If it was up to the American media, we would all be raving illiterates, or at least, cultural incompetents, ignorant of the momentous events and waves of history influencing our lives today.

You may have heard that on November 3, Nobel Laureate author, Toni Morrison, received a medal from the French Minister of Culture, Frederic Mitterrand, and was made a member of the French Legion of Honor, which, according to the Associated Press story run in all major U.S. media, was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, to recognize military, cultural, scientific or social contributions to France, including by people who are not French citizens.
What this story did not reveal - and what is of even more interest to The Obsessive Reader in her Cultured Ghetto - is that the U.S.-based Toni Morrison Society held several extraordinary events in Paris, following the Legion of Honor ceremony, that went beyond the ego strokes of awards heaped on an already acclaimed writer.

It's a crying shame that the American media, including African American outlets such as "The Root" website, excluded news of the Society's Sixth Biennial Conference, Toni Morrison and Circuits of the Imagination, held in Paris from November 4 - 7. Or, that the conference programs included "presentations by Morrison scholars from around the world, a Jazz Performance, the announcement of the recipients of the 2010 Toni Morrison Society Book Prize, a Language Matters Secondary Teachers Workshop, (and) a City Tour that focuses on sites important in the African Diaspora." 

The highlight - in this Obsessive Reader's mind - was the first international placement of a "Bench by the Road," the result of a beautiful project that places intricately carved iron benches in sites important in African American history. On Friday, November 5, a Bench by the Road was situated at Rue Louis Delgres in the 
20√®me Arrondissement to commemorate the site of the Abolition of Slavery in French Territories in 1794. As an explanation for the project, Morrison said about her lush, searing, unforgettable novel, Beloved

There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There's no 300-foot tower, there's no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn't exist . . . the book had to. (The World, 1989).

The link between American blacks and Paris is strong and lengthy.  The abolitionist history of France began in 1794, when the French National Convention passed the Emancipation Declaration, outlawing slavery in the colonies, as an outcome of the Revolution's The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,   By 1848, the Second Republic passed its final Decree of the abolition of the slavery,  The irony is that the French Revolution was inspired by the American Revolution of 1776 - a revolution that, instead of outlawing slavery, intensified it.  And all of us in the Cultured Ghetto know about the symbiosis between French and African American culture in the 20th Century, from Josephine Baker to Sidney Bechet, to Richard Wright and James Baldwin.  Black exiles in Paris created the Jazz Age; during the Harlem Renaissance, black folks used to call Paris "the white Harlem".

The seal of the Societe des Amis des Noirs c.1788
What Toni Morrison accomplished in Paris last week was more than winning another prize.  With the conference in her name, and the Bench by the Road commemorating the abolition of slavery in French colonies, she showed the power of history and the significance of literature in shaping humanity.  Paris noir, anyone?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

From Day One

Obsessive Reading Begins at An Early Age
It's not only writers - like me - who devour the written word and depend on books and literature above all other art forms to accompany them on the mundane and mysterious voyage called life. No matter how unique I believe myself to be, I know that I am joined by thousands who also read books with passion, urgency and, sometimes, desperation.  You know exactly what I mean;  as a kid it was the back of cereal boxes, and the impossibility of toilet or bathtub without at least an ink-leaking comic book, or sticky-paged magazine.  As a grown-up, it's staying up too late to get your recommended eight hours of sleep because an author's voice has you in its grip, captive.  Does this condition of being an obsessive reader get conveyed through DNA?  All I  know is that my father gobbled up several newspapers during the course of a demanding week, and my mother, who had to be at work for a federal agency at seven a.m., regularly depleted her health using her night owl hours to dwell fascinated in the fictional worlds she entered in books. With parents such as these, my brother, sister and I were card carrying library users by kindergarten, thus commencing a lifelong reading obsession, expressed in singular ways, but passed down, nonetheless, like my mother's hazel eyes and my father's mahogany skin.  Of course, any sociologist, or just plain common sense, will tell you that it's not nature, it's nurture, the home environment where reading is a habit, and books respected.  Reading begets reading, and one book leads to another.  Isn't that an enduring truth to be grateful for?

Nostalgia For a Trumpet

Nostalgia for a Trumpet: Poems of Memory and History Book Description

Sometimes in our culture it seems that poetry has become tiny. It should be huge. It should be the whale that swallows the world and gives it back to us transformed. Susan D. Anderson's work shapes passion on the page, utilizing a variety of personas, delving into the past of a person or a place, taking sides, making an argument. She's keenly attuned to the eloquence of the voiceless, portraying the spiritual resourcefulness of the people whose culture she was not only born into, but chose to embrace. The stories of ordinary life are the substance of history; the passage of events is reflected in daily intimacies. Through these intricacies, African Americans have provided their gifts to the world. Anderson's poetry strives to contain some bits of their music and history, justice and love, which is woven into every corner of America, and so the world.
Nostalgia for a Trumpet: Poems of Memory and History is published by Tia Chucha Press and can be purchased at most bookstores as well as http://www.buy.com/; http://www.amazon.com/;http://www.infibeam.com/ and http://www.abebooks.com/.