I've always liked to ride around in the country, but these days it has just gotten so ugly with hate that it's difficult to enjoy. Trump signs are everywhere, proudly advertising the homeowner's hatred of all things humanity has ever considered decent and proper. Most are not so open as the one above. Their signs are understated red, white and blue. But beneath that facade, they … [Read More...] about A few minor observations about Trump supporters in the rural midwest
The chart below shows the difference between the European Union and the United States in their effective handling of Covid-19 to date. You can see that Europe got hit hard first and then quickly started bringing down their number of new infections. The US, even with additional time to act, did worse in limiting the initial onslaught, and then totally failed to bring the numbers down significantly. And this is not per-capita, the EU has a much larger population so the real comparison is even more devastating for the US. And with nearly all of the Republicans and a lot of regular Americans ignoring expert advice, expect the red line on the graph to go off the chart in the coming months.
Why do we put up with such deadly, economy destroying incompetence from the Republicans? Why do we put up with weak national Democrats who measly roll over while all this is happening, doing little more than getting off a few good quips?
Saw this image from Pete Souza’s Instagram. Souza was President Obama’s White House Photographer, but this could have been any president before Trump. Every single one, whether you liked his politics or not, could go out and smile and shake hands and at least pretend he cared about people.
But not today, eh. Who would have ever thought Republicans could so totally lose their moral compass. And that is a serious understatement. They have stomped on their moral compass, stomped it into bits, then threw it in a paper bag full of shit, put it on their own front porch, set fire to it, stomped out the fire, and then licked the shit off their shoes, spitting out the last shitty shards of what had been their moral compass. And ya know, time may prove that to be an understatement as well.
The family and I watched Da Five Bloods last night, and we had some thoughts. If you haven’t seen it yet, click below to watch the trailer. Or if Netflix is available to you, just go watch the movie. Then come back and we can chat about it.
I’ve been impressed with Spike Lee’s work for a long time, but he’s taken it to another level with just about every movie he’s made since 2000, starting with Bamboozled and 25th Hour, including Inside Man, Miracle at St. Anna, and Redhook Summer, BlacKkKlansman and now Da 5 Bloods.
The trailer tells the basic story, so I’m not really giving out any serious spoilers with this brief synopsis. The story is about four Vietnam War veterans who return to Vietnam to find the remains of their fallen squad leader, and collect a hoard of gold they had found and buried on a doomed mission that cost the squad leader his life, and did irreparable damage to everyone in the squad. Hijinks, double-crosses, and firefights ensue.
Those who only know Spike Lee by his public persona – the Mars Blackman character kissing Michael Jordan’s ass, the clownish little guy in all the blue and orange Knicks regalia, the angry cartoon character on the Spaceship to the Sun in the famous Simpsons episode –probably haven’t seen a lot of, if any, Spike Lee movies and probably have unrealistic expectations about him as a filmmaker.
Spike Lee is one of the more ambitious and accomplished artists and storytellers in the world today. His stories work on a lot of levels. They contain multitudes. But at the heart of them all is a deep love and appreciation for humanity. Whether he’s portraying a Trump supporter like Paul in Da 5 Bloods, or a racist white guy, or a Vietnamese chicken vendor, the character has dimensions that go deep. The best of them have back stories that make them sympathetic. Not excused, but understood, empathized with, and often loved.
The Paul character in Da 5 Bloods may well be Lee’s greatest accomplishment as a writer and filmmaker. Paul, in his own words, is fucked up inside and broken. As the film progresses, his pain and suffering become Shakespearean and he delivers a series of soliloquies, the first of which will probably go down in film history and win the actor, Delroy Lindo, an Oscar, almost certainly a nomination. If ever a man were so obviously digging his own grave throughout the course of a story, it is Paul. His is a timeless tragedy like the best of them from Shakespeare or the classic Greeks.
Again, those unfamiliar with Spike Lee’s films will probably expect Da 5 Bloods to be a message movie. It’s true that it has plenty of messages pasted and splattered throughout, particularly the observation that black soldiers fight for a country that doesn’t treat them as humans, but it is not a message movie at heart. Da 5 Bloods is a classic character study and adventure movie. It’s a rumination on life and pain and love and greed and redemption; and film history.
In the end, Da 5 Bloods end up as a more integrated squad. Whether there’s a message in that or not, I don’t really know, but I expect that Spike Lee doesn’t miss a lot, so maybe. Another message one could take away, especially if you are a fan of FX’s What we do in the Shadows, is that Paul’s MAGA hat is cursed.
The cinematography and soundtrack are excellent. The story is told through alternating action in the film’s present and flashbacks to their tour in 1971. It goes from heavily saturated, high contrast greens in a 4:3 aspect ratio like the old TV sets to incredibly well-composed and lighted scenes in the present. Scenes shot in an abandoned Buddhist temple really stand out. Most of the soundtrack is by Marvin Gaye. It’s a great movie just to look at and listen to.
So I recommend it. Then if you are not familiar with much of Lee’s work, watch 25th Hour, Bamboozled, and Red Hook Summer.
One night during my first summer in New York, my wife and I heard African drums in the distance as we strolled down the boardwalk in Coney Island. As we neared the rhythmic sounds, we noticed quite a few people, dressed all in white, walking backwards across the beach toward the boardwalk. I wanted to check it out, but my wife, who has some experience with African secret societies, didn’t want to go any further. She recognized it as some kind of religious ceremony and didn’t want to intrude.
The following year, as luck would have it, I was again at Coney Island Beach in the evening on the second Saturday in June. Again, I heard the drums and saw people dressed in white. It was earlier. The crowd was large. People were dancing in and around a drum circle near the water. Others were splashing in the surf. Flowers and fruit were strewn along the beach. Several people stood calf-deep in the water, holding flowers, staring solemnly out to sea.
I spoke with a few people and learned that what I had stumbled upon was the annual “A Tribute to Our Ancestors of the Middle Passage,” an event that honors and remembers the Africans who were enslaved and carried across the Atlantic on slave ships over nearly four hundred years, a voyage which came to be known as the Middle Passage.
I would go on to attend the event almost every year for the next 12 years. Some years I would photograph it, others just watch from a distance, preferring to respect the privacy and personal space of people engaging in religious and spiritual activities.
The African drum circle provides a relentless beat to the proceedings. The rhythms call to to mind, and body, a feeling of remembrance, of continuity, of the old continent and its vibrant religions and secret societies, and of Africans in captivity suffering and dying beyond the sea’s horizon.
I recognized some of the drummers from the drum circles in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The drum circle is a vibrant part of New York City life, free and open to the public, as either participant or spectator.
The crashing waves echo the Middle Passage narrative as they end their own journey across the Atlantic and wash upon the beaches of the Americas. I watch the people standing in the water, dressed in white or colorful African batiks, holding flowers and staring solemnly out to sea. I hear rhythms of the drums and waves. I watch the moon rise over the ocean. It seems that the spirits of those who suffered and died are loomings just beyond the horizon, reflections of ancient souls. Their presence seems palpable in the rhythmic crashing of the drums and waves upon the beach.
As a photographer, I’ve never been comfortable invading people’s privacy, even when they are in a public place and have no legal, and arguably no moral, right to privacy. I know it is legal to get within a few feet of someone praying fervently on a public beach and taking his or her photograph; and I know that many if those who act out in public love having their picture taken; but unless I am absolutely sure they are okay with it, I feel it’s very bad manners to invade their space with a camera. At the Tribute to Our Ancestors, I don’t think I was ever absolutely sure anyone was okay with it.
In order to overcome my sense of morals and etiquette and photograph people engaged in these very personal acts, and who may not want to be photographed, I have to feel it is worth it on some higher level than merely me getting a good photograph. I have to feel that what they are doing has some kind of historical importance that really should be documented so as to not be forgotten. If it’s just going exist as a file on my computer, or a print in my scrapbook, or as a spectacle in a social media feed to garner a few likes, I just don’t feel it’s worth it.
I am not alone in those sentiments. It wasn’t unusual for people to ask me – politely, but with a skeptical tone – why I was photographing the Tribute. That was my answer: that it was a beautiful event the should be documented so as to not be forgotten, and I was sincere. Everyone who asked seemed to accept that answer. Of course I often asked permission to take individual’s photographs and respected anyone who said they would rather I didn’t, but most of the images I captured were of crowds or people facing away from me, so getting permission was impractical.
In some pictures you see the Pan-African Flag, with its red, black and green horizontal bars. Pan-Africanism espouses the preservation, or recovery, of African traditions and emphasizes the contributions that Africans have made to world civilization. South African writer Colin Legum described Pan-Africanism as “a movement of ideas and emotions.” That seems an apt description of the “Tribute to Our Ancestors.”
Over the years, I noticed that many, if not most, of the participants in the Tribute were activist-types who had come down from Harlem. Pan-Africanism was big in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, with Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois on opposite ends of the movement, much like Malcom X and Martin Luther King would be 40 or so years later. Garvey was a black separatist who favored a physical return of African-Americans to Africa. Dubois believed equality could be achieved through integration and rule of law. Dubois’ vision of Pan-Africanism carried the day, but Garvey’s idea of a return to Africa lived on within the movement, albeit mostly in a figurative sense.
South African writer Colin Legum wrote that race-consciousness was the dominant theme of Pan-Africanism:
“Deep at its quivering, sensitive centre, Pan-Africanism rests on colour-consciousness. Recognition of the unique historical position of black peoples as the universal bottom- dog led to a revolt against passive submission to this situation.The emotions associated with blackness were intellectualized; and so Pan-Africanism became a vehicle for the struggle of black people to regain their pride, their strength and their independence. But although black skins were made into a shield for the battle, Pan- Africanism became a race-conscious movement, not a racialist one.
Race-consciousness is the assertion by a people with recognizable ethnical similarities of their own uniqueness; a belief in their own special qualities, distinctions and rights. It is a positive statement in defence of one’s race; but it does not seek to elevate that race above other races. When race-consciousness elevates itself above other races, discriminates and attacks other races, it becomes racialism,” wrote Legum.
The Middle Passage took between three weeks and three months, depending on the winds. Estimates vary, but the consensus low range is that 10 to 15 million Africans made that crossing and that between 10 and 30 percent of them died in transit. Ten percent of 15 million is 1.5 million. Thirty percent is 5 million. That’s two to five million people, all of whom died horrible deaths from a brutal variety of causes. When you consider the numbers who died being captured or transported to the ships, especially in the c context of population growth, the Middle Passage was a holocaust that rivals, or even surpasses, the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazi Germans and their allies in the early 20th century.
One witness testified that in 1783 a ship carried 600 slaves, 70 of whom, or 11.6 percent, died. Historian James A. Rawley cites a doctor who reported that on a ship that carried 602 slaves, 155, or 25.7 percent, didn’t make it.
Two philosophies dominated the loading of a slave ship. “Loose Packing” gave the captives more space in the hopes that more of them would survive the crossing. “Tight Packing” operated on the assumption that, despite higher casualties, more captives would live and yield a greater profit, according to Rawley and other sources.
There were long stretches during the passage when the victims were forced to piss and shit where they lay, and seasickness was a common problem, adding layers of vomit to the mess. The holds had very little ventilation and I can’t imagine a word that begins to communicate how horrible the resulting stench had to be. Those fetid conditions caused disease to run rampant, adding dysentery – also known as Bloody Flux – and diarrhea to the mix. Then there came smallpox, scurvy and other afflictions born from unsanitary conditions. Women, young men, boys and girls were routinely raped by captains and crews, or savagely beaten if they resisted.
For profit’s sake, it wasn’t unusual for captains to take on more slaves than their ships could accommodate, even by the brutal standards of the slave trade. The most infamous example of this came to be known as the Zong Massacre. An overloaded ship, the Zong, got stuck in the Doldrums, a term for a condition at sea where there are little or no winds. As they sat for weeks not moving, many of the captives, and nearly half of the crew died. The captain then decided to jettison some of the captives to save the ships and give the owners the ability to collect the insurance that had been placed on the captives. Crew members tossed 132 individuals into the sea. Another 10 followed them in what the captain described as an act of defiance.
The Zong incident became a big part of the Abolitionist cause, and they tried to bring criminal charges against the captain. Britain’s Solicitor General declined their entreaties, saying that the people who died were not humans, and that it was the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.
Jungian analyst Michael Vannoy Adams points out that the archetype of the journey is made of up three stages: separation, initiation and return, but that the Middle Passage only included the trauma of first two stages, not the return, which makes it even more traumatic. Many of the captives who committed suicide reportedly believed that their spirits would return home to their family and friends, back in the country where they were born. That strikes me as just another way of romanticizing an unfathomable horror, but there’s probably a small amount of truth to it.
Many, if not most, of the deaths during the Middle Passage were attributed to Melancholia or Nostalgia by the medical profession. In ancient history, Melancholia was identified as one of the four Humours. Fear, despondency, and sadness were its symptoms. During the era of the Middle Passage it was considered a disease that could result in death. Nostalgia, translated as “homesickness” back then, was also thought to be a major cause of deaths on the voyage. Symptoms were thought to include fainting, high fever, indigestion, stomach pain, and death. Many of those deaths, although chalked up to Melancholy, were people who committed suicide by jumping overboard and either drowning or getting eaten by the sharks that routinely followed the ships across the sea.
Melancholy – in its more modern meaning as a sad or wistful mood – is palpable at the Tribute. As the participants stand in the surf and gaze at the horizon, a feeling of immense sadness and wistfulness permeates the beach. Of course dying from old world diseases such as Melancholia or Nostalgia sounds very noble and romantic. But the reality of how the captives died during the Middle Passage was as brutal as just about anything in human history.
The pain and trauma those people suffered is difficult to contemplate. But that’s exactly what people at the Tribute do.
They contemplate those horrors of the Middle Passage as they honor the victims, and try to ensure that their suffering will not be forgotten. These photos are my attempt to honor those who keep the memory alive, and educate others about such an important, world changing time in human history.
Perhaps the most positive thing to come out of the protests against police brutality is the widespread participation and support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters have received from whites. All too often white folk are unable to believe that darker skinned folk’s grievances are real, or they downplay their importance and horrific manifestations in everyday life.
One of the best pieces of writing on the subject is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article The Case for Reparations, from the Atlantic’s June 2014 issue. Don’t be put off by the title and any knee-jerk reaction you might have for the idea of reparations, the article is likely not at all what you might think. The case that Coates makes could just as well be the case for the current protests. The history of violence and murder against Blacks in this country is staggering, but where Coates rises so far above that narrative is in the details of the economics involved, how straight up systematic theft and fraud have made and kept people poor. The case for reparations boils down to the same case you would make if someone stole your car and burned down your house. You would want your car back and the money to rebuild your house. And you certainly wouldn’t want to be beaten, jailed, or murdered for complaining about it to the authorities and expecting recompense. How far back in your family’s history it should go, well that’s where it gets tricky. Shoud you be recompensed for the theft of your father’s property? Your grandfatther’s? Your great-great-great grandfather’s property? That’s probably not going to happen, but the fact is that generational wealth is important, and the right and opportunity to accumulate it has been historically denied to Black people in America.
Empathy is the key to understanding other people and buidling a better society. Writers like Coates put us in the shoes of people whose life experiences we have not shared, and can hardly imagine.
I think the answer to this and to most of our societal problems is the same. Everyone should have equal rights and responsibilities under the law. It really is the simple, and it’s an idea on which almost everyone agrees. So why is the implementation of such a popular and simple idea so difficult and complex?
On July 4, 2013, I took my 14-year-old son to the Coney Island amusement park in Brooklyn, New York. We were present as police closed off a section of the park that was popular with lower income, mostly darker skinned New Yorkers, many from projects around the city. The cops forced all the businesses to close along that stretch and used a line of mounted police to drive thousands of people off the street. We saw police beat a young woman who protested. They beat her down to the concrete with their fists and then kicked her while she was down.
There were no acts of violence or vandalism or any other kind of civil disobedience that precipitated the police action. People were behaving peacefully and generally appeared to be having a good time.
The following morning I returned to the scene and asked one of the business owners why the police had cleared the street.
“Too many black people in one place,” he said.
You can see the entire essay here at Burn Magazine.
Maybe you can relate?