Monday, 30 March 2009

Black Art/Black Lives

Why is it that the more widely publicized and the better funded Black History Month becomes, the deeper the divisions between white and black Philadelphians grow? There is no one answer. And there are certainly no easy answers. But if we don't try to discover the roots of this paradox and remove those evil influences, our future as a city and a nation is doomed.

The first, and least satisfying, answer is the operation of what I call the Fourth of July syndrome. For the two centuries and more of its existence, 99 and 44/100ths of U.S. (that's us, you and me) did not act as if the achievement of an innovative egalitarian culture were the most important item on our personal and national agendas. Except during Fourth of July orations. If Christians display a contemptible hypocrisy when expressing their ideals "only on Sunday" to be closet pagans the rest of the week, then Americans who only pretended to be egalitarian one day in the year were HyperHypocrites.

Indeed it has taken a load of Hype to pretend that we were egalitarian souls when we began by committing genocide on the indigenes we mistakenly called Indians and built half of our economy on the buying and selling of slaves--three fourths, if you include the very very religious New England sea captains who also cashed in on what Melville called "History's foulest crime". His aphorism about the America he loved so much he hated its evils like no other writer since still seems prescient to me: "Nature's noblest chance blighted by history's foulest crime."

The direst consequences of this hypocrisy haunt the City of Brotherly Love at this very moment. And the crisis seems to deepen by the minute. Center City merchants are reluctantly voting to tax themselves a little bit more for cleaner and safer (and thus more economically profitable) streets. They're putting the cart of cleanup before the horse of a different color. The horse's ass of racism. The Koerner report didn't teach us to mend our ways. Last week's horror story that fully a quarter of black males between the ages of 20 and 29 have come under the control of our criminal justice system will be replaced by some greater horror next week. Our media batten on a horror of the week. It boosts ratings to talk superficially about the racial crisis at the same time that it motivates the white "victims" to abandon Center City more and more.

Most Americans now suffer from what I call Compassion Fatigue. They rationalize their increasingly crude and unfeeling responses to our common malaise with cop out drivel like "I've never owned slaves. Why are they picking on me?" I recently walked through the "Let This Be Your Home" exhibit at the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum with a 24 year old Ph.D. candidate in architectural history from the University of Freiburg. The opening sequences take you through the South from which the blacks fled, at first for defense jobs up North during World War I, and increasingly just because the mechanization of cotton picking was wiping out the only jobs available to them, miserable though that employment always was.

There is a particularly appalling photo of a lynching victim swinging from a tree, with Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit" in the background. Next to it is a great ugly crowd reveling in the brutality. She asked me where there was a black well-dressed man in the crowd. I was puzzled myself until the terrible truth dawned on me--he was standing out from the crowd because he was the next man to swing from the tree. There are signs from the segregated bus and train stations making their compelling point. "How long ago did they abolish that kind of segregation," she asked. I was ashamed to have to say 1965.

How appallingly late in our history. I have just finished reading Phyllis Rose's superb biography of Josephine Baker. Check it out from the Free Library. Its title is "Jazz Cleopatra". It is full of anti-biotics for Americans suffering that terrible intellectual disease I have called compassion fatigue. Would you believe this? There was a combat troop of blacks in World War I called the Harlem Hellraisers. They won 171 Croixs de Guerre from the French government for their bravery in action. But Black Jack Pershing wouldn't let them march in the Victory Parade in Paris. Might get uppity ideas to take back home, suh. He also secretly circulated memoranda forbidding fraternization between black American troops and the French soldiers they shared the trenches with. Is that sick or what?

Josephine was some prophetic lady. She struggled out of the slime of East St. Louis to star, first on Broadway, then become the absolute sensation of l920's Paris. During World War II she became a secret agent for the O.S.S., using her mobility and visibility as an entertainer to gather information from the Germans in North Africa and Portugal. After the war, she started her Rainbow Tribe, eventually a dozen children from all over the world, a paradigm of a future loving world community.

Surprised that you'd never heard about this great lady? The French knew and loved her so well that her funeral in Paris was the biggest since the war, rivaling the burial of national heroes like Charles De Gaulle. We don't know about such great black Americans because our media have lied to us by omission for centuries. Instead they O.D. us on the Trumps. Isn't that disgusting? And is it any wonder that America is reeling like a drunken giant from crisis to crisis.

Did you notice the PDN story (2/28/90) that fully 60% of the S&L failures have been attributed to outright fraud. But we little taxpayers are picking up the pieces to the tune of $2000 per family, with the final costs not yet totted up. And some of the S&L crooks are still floating around on the yachts they stole from U.S. (us, i.e. you and me). But a quarter of the black males have tasted jail--partly at least because they've been living in human hells devised by redlining S&L executives. Talk about perestroika. Talk about glasnost. Don't you think we need a little here at home.

The local museums have pitched in to make Black History month memorable. PMA has a throwaway show in one corridor. It's undercaptioned. It has the earmarks of a pro forma "we are as liberal as the next museum" response. But there are three lovely Horace Pippins, that great folk genius of Westchester. I suggested two years ago that they mount a proper centennial of his birth retrospective. No go. Just a little throwaway show. Maybe it's not better than nothing. Because it soothes compassion fatiguesters who can't salve their guilty consciences by a quick Sunday morning walkby.(I watched a bunch of them last Sunday when I went to check out the show.) PAFA is coming in a little late for Black History month with its Morris Gallery show on black artist Ray Saunders. He's an interesting painter. So don't miss it. And there were some fine black quilt makers in the recently concluded "Appalachian Quilts" show at the Balch.

But art is no substitute for life. Indeed, in America, it is my increasingly sad conclusion, Culture has become the Great Coverup. Buy art. See art. Love art. It's easier than paying your black workers a living wage. It's easier than looking at the social disaster of North Philly. It's easier by far than learning to love your black brothers and sisters. But as the great poet W.H. Auden once observed in a poem "We must love one another/or die."

Not that I want to downplay the art impulse. But art is only important as it enriches our human capacities to live more thoughtfully and more compassionately. My life has been enriched lately by our belated recovery of great untutored geniuses like Bill Traylor of Alabama, or Elijah Pearce of Columbus, Ohio. How many mute inglorious black Miltons are there lying fallow out there for our art historians and museum curators to discover. These outsider artists are particularly crucial to the hoped for healing of America's racial divisiveness because they reveal the astonishing potential (and horrendous wasted talent) of the ordinary black citizen. Walk in the shoes of the black student at the AfroAm. Proud?

1 comment:

a.mueller said...

Hello Patrick, I LOVE BILL TRAYLOR'S WORK; and I wish I had known that you didn't know his work because I would have loved to be be the one to show and tell. It was my folk loving uncle Bill who opened my eyes at the folk art museum in NYC. Love, Andrea