There are so many American cities that I love: Pittsburgh has got to be located in the be most fairy tale/textbook ideal spot on the continent; Gallup is a dream I can’t shake; Baltimore and DC are more Janus than the Twin Cities; St. Paul in the late spring (right now) is temptation; New York, much like Miami, is a pain in the ass but for entirely different reasons. And then there’s Los Angeles, Jason’s home town and a city that – for the last 20 years – beguiles me like no other. If I stray from Boca Raton, it’ll be to cheat with LA.
Which, Angelenos don’t say ‘LA’; they say ‘Los Angeles’. I think that’s nifty. The air is dry. What the hell!? People just pick up and hike the the canyons. Everyone seems to be casually eating at some great little spot all the time. The city rolls out of and into bed. And, underneath all that apparently unstudied ease… things get done – without the Midwest’s self-righteousness or the East’s harshness or the South’s weird defiance (or South Florida’s garishness, sheesh).
I muse on American cities in general and Los Angeles in particular because of Dope, a wonderful movie wherein one specific scene caught my attention. Midway through their misadventures, Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy arrive at AJ’s house. AJ’s son, Jaleel, invites them in to wait for his father and raps for them in his home studio. The three friends haze Jaleel a bit for his unique, self-diagnosed dyslexia, and, in so doing, in-joke a line from one of their own band’s songs. Without missing a beat, Jaleel invites them to record a song. That moment is ‘so LA’.
There’s a way in Los Angeles that people can seem to ride out minor humiliation because a more attuned portion of their consciousness continuously scans for ‘that thing’. In New York and DC, people always on the make come across as smarmy but are typically tolerated. In the Midwest (and Canada, interestingly enough), such behavior is undignified and its perpetrators can wind up pariahs. In South Florida, it’s how anything, everything gets done. But in Los Angeles, it is a Zen art guided by a spirit of possibility.
That scene reminded me immediately of a parallel moment in American Dreamz, another fantastic – although far less well-regarded – movie. American Dreamz is a satire where Dope is a fable packed with some of the painful and amazing things that can happen in that part of the world. American Dreamz handles adjacent themes with cutting humor rather than Dope’s absurdities. But both films are gimlet-eyed and do not insult the reality of their characters’ or their audiences’ lives.
In American Dreamz, Omer surreptitiously goofs around on his cousin Iqbal’s home stage as disco lights and Casio beats roll only to be ‘discovered’ by the movie’s eponymous TV show’s scouts. Omer – rather than Iqbal who’d initially submitted an audition tape – is selected for the star-making singing contest. When Omer delivers the news to Iqbal at dinner, Iqbal shouts, “Do you know how hard I’ve worked to get on this show!? You’ve stolen my dream!!!” and flounces out. In their next scene together, however, like Jameel in Dope, Iqbal, with happy self-satisfaction and confidence, decides to coach his cousin to prepare him to win American Dreamz.
Now, Iqbal (portrayed by Tony Yalda) lives in Orange County, not Los Angeles proper, and, unlike Jameel (played by Quincy Brown), he is wiry and shrill. But proximity matters, and Iqbal has keenly internalized the neighboring Angeleno’s sharp eye for possibility and ability to instantaneously overcome slights in service of bigger things.
Jameel is Black and Iqbal is Arab, and this matters. The actual and stereotyped-perception of violence that shape and mark both of their communities serve as interesting juxtapositions to their willingness to move past humiliation toward the possibility of success in the entertainment industry. Jaleel is clearly pulled between Ladera where he lives and “doesn’t have a set” and Inglewood where “my heart is… even though my body’s right here.” He’s hard to a fault, but clearly has a talent for music that is as true to him as his father and uncle’s roots in the Bottoms. In opposition, Iqbal who appears to simply tolerate his family is in reality very comfortable with himself and in his environs – and is very welcomed and supported by his loved-ones.
I imagine that in Chicago and Atlanta people similar to Jameel and Iqbal are checking the lower frequencies for possibilities. But, the nonchalant, dare I say, grace with which these two characters handle it is a faithful representation of how things get done in Los Angeles, a testament to both actors’ and sets of filmmakers’ attention to detail when it comes to that city. The American Dream, like the American Condition, is founded, as Fitzgerald put it, on “an infinite capacity for hope.” In Los Angeles, that hope is realized and monetized and capitalized with elegant, matter-of-fact company town industry.
I saw it as soon as it opened in South Florida.
You don’t understand.
When I was in high school, Boca Raton got independent films – only at Shadowood – well after they’d been released in Los Angeles, New York, and other ‘major’ cities. Although every once in a while Miami was on the ‘major’ cities list, back then, for me to go to there to see indie movies was a logistical impossibility. So, I would read about a movie in Harper’s Bazaar or Spin and then I’d obsessively check for its openings and showtimes in XS, South Florida’s alternative weekly magazine.1 That’s how I found and saw My Own Private Idaho.
My Own Private Idaho was the ‘movie’ portion of the notably awkward dinner-and-a-movie date I went on with REDACTED REDACTED our junior year. After that date, I knew my own priorities didn’t include ‘keeping up appearances’ with petty performances of white-derived upper middle class Blackness.2 And, from then on, I came to expect a helluva lot more from movies and culture in general.3
And so it was that, two weeks before college classes began, I came to debate either a last minute switch to Howard University in Washington DC or the planned but dreaded move to University of Florida in Gainesville, and, at one point, I literally thought to myself, ‘DC is the nation’s capital. It must get first run indie films.’ (For that and a myriad of other reasons) Howard it was.4
But you still don’t understand.
I enjoy critique; it is my language. Analysis and reflection are why I study and teach and part of why I make art. John and Andre make fun of me because I read reviews before I watch movies or buy records or read books or see art. But reviews are how I found maybe half of my library. And while reviews often help me see things with new eyes, sometimes they help me see through my eyes with sharper focus.
I have few words to describe the experience of reading Hilton Als‘ review of Moonlight or Wesley Morris‘ essay Last Taboo. I can only say that a heartbreaking, self-affirming ‘Yes!’ filled my whole being as I journeyed through both pieces. I cried when in Als’ I read, “But, at the end of every outing, Teresa and Juan show their respect by returning Chiron home.” I broke a smile when Morris’ 9 or 10 year-old self declared, “Yours is so much handsomer than mine!” They are erudite writers, and that matters. But it isn’t just their skill and sophistication and insight that move me; the way they write through personal experience about community and family, attraction and love moves me.5 After reading both pieces, I felt it was my duty, nay, my honor, to see Moonlight and complete a circle of witnessing.
Just as I had searched glossy magazines and disposable weeklies 25 years before, I hunted online for release dates and locations and showtimes. I found and saw Moonlight. Toward the end of the film version of Interview with the Vampire, Brad Pitt’s Louis goes to the movies and sees, for the first time since he was turned into a vampire, the sunrise. That was me watching Moonlight, except what was returned to me on the screen wasn’t something I had lost but something I’d been looking for and hadn’t found in a movie: an accurate reflection of integral parts of my self.
And yet, you can’t possibly understand.
It wasn’t just the story, although the story is as unfathomably profound as Als and Morris proclaimed. I know the Florida in Moonlight. I know those streets – not in the ways that the characters in the movie or the real people who live on them know them, true. Still, they are my streets. I know that atmosphere, that swim in the ocean, that late night trip to the diner, the color of all of those artificial lights indoors and in alleyways. I know those relationships; the catalysts for me are different, yes, but the dynamics and the patterns, I know those well. I know those conversations, the impulses behind them. Oh, I know those feelings.
And, as an artist, I know the thrill of committing to Moonlight‘s languid pace, its explicit structure, its lush cinematography (and the waiting involved). And I know the ramrod faith in that casting of Chiron.
I know I know I know I know I know I know.
And now, maybe, you understand.
- Washington City Paper in the 90s remains, in my opinion, the gold standard for alternative weeklies. ↩︎
- It was a very bad date. He was attentive and polite, but I found him stodgy and boring. Someone should have reminded me that he, as I, was young and inexperienced and likely nervous. In fact, I think someone did say as much, but I do remember dismissing her opinion. ↩︎
- It was a great movie. There was a morning dewiness, a flushed fleshiness to it, a longing and an aching that pulled at me that night and every time I’ve watched it since. ↩︎
- Perhaps it seems contradictory that I chose Howard, the premiere bastion of “‘keeping up appearances’ with petty performances of white-derived upper middle class Blackness”, but, I’d also reasoned that unlike UF, Howard would be home to very broad and deep spectra of Blackness. ↩︎
- For the same reason, I wonder if Glenn Ligon has written about this film. ↩︎
I had a very good editor, superlative for me — Bob Gottlieb. What made him good for me was a number of things — knowing what not to touch; asking all the questions you probably would have asked yourself had there been the time. Good editors are really the third eye. Cool. Dispassionate. They don’t love you or your work; for me that is what is valuable — not compliments. Sometimes it’s uncanny; the editor puts his or her finger on exactly the place the writer knows is weak but just couldn’t do any better at the time. Or perhaps the writer thought it might fly, but wasn’t sure. Good editors identify that place and sometimes make suggestions. Some suggestions are not useful because you can’t explain everything to an editor about what you are trying to do. I couldn’t possibly explain all of those things to an editor, because what I do has to work on so many levels. But within the relationship if there is some trust, some willingness to listen, remarkable things can happen. I read books all the time that I know would have profited from not a copy editor but somebody just talking through it. And it is important to get a great editor at a certain time, because if you don’t have one in the beginning, you almost can’t have one later. If you work well without an editor, and your books are well received for five or ten years, and then you write another one — which is successful but not very good — why should you then listen to an editor?
Bob is ours.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to be an artist – an artist of color, a woman artist, a Black woman artist – right now. Now.1 I’m trying to reconcile my joy! with my rage, my desire to play with my instinct to preserve my self, unadulterated thrill with haunting dread. Resistance takes focus; living takes living. And a very important part of living, at least for me, is aesthetic.
We’re here having a proper Jamaican breakfast, my mother, my stepfather, and I: yellow salt fish (with curry but sans ackee because Randy doesn’t like it, alas…), deep-green callaloo, toasted bammy, and fried dumplings. These things taste good and look good. I enjoy them even as existential angst hangs over me. And we’re listing to Bob. And I feel like I can go on because, in his music he tells me, he tells us, that we have a right to live joyfully, playfully, thrillingly even as we look steely-eyed at nefarious forces.
Marlon James has this wonderful write-up about Bob’s style at GQ.2 I do not believe that bad times make for great art. That’s just stupid. Bad times call for determined minds, tough minds, and living through bad times take takes living:
Living in Trench Town, then one of the worst slums in the world, didn’t mean you couldn’t have style. But it did mean money was so tight that you usually had only one chance to make it work—because those extra six pounds sterling weren’t coming around again for weeks, and the reason you were fashion-model thin was because you hadn’t had dinner in a month. If you were just one of the many singers, musicians, and hustlers hanging around Studio One, downtown, desperate for your big break, money would sometimes not come at all, even with hits on the radio. So that shirt had to count. That jacket had to roll just as hard at a 10 p.m. party as it did at 10 a.m. church. There had to be 99 ways to rock that one pair of jeans—and those Clarks shoes were yours only until somebody stole them. Style meant making unmatchable things match, because what you’d got was all you were going to have for a while.
The entire article is instructive, but do read it to rejoice, and, yes, mourn.
I haven’t figured out whether 2016 was an unusually rough year or, if, because I’m older and more aware, things simply seem to be going the way that all things do at a faster clip. Either way, I’m internally if not (thankfully) externally battered in a way that I haven’t felt since 1980-81. I was recently told that I’ve been nostalgic, and perhaps I have been. However, I would describe the tenor of my mood as elegiac. I’ll leave it at that.
In the spring, MCAD Library Director Amy Naughton Becker uploaded to MCAD’s Digital Collections my revised MFA thesis. Now more than ever, that document serves as a blueprint for my actions in the world as a community member. In particular since the election, the following paragraph has been ringing in my head:
The intersection of community and citizenship is central to the thinking that supports my practice. Communities share physical places and spaces like cities and conceptual places and spaces like ethnic or gendered identities that affect community members’ lived experiences in predictable patterns. For me, ‘place’ is denotative and indicates an intention to ‘fix’ where ‘space’ is connotative and indicates ‘flexibility’. Thus, ‘Toronto’ simultaneously refers to the location of and carries ideas about the experience of that Canadian city. Likewise, in North America, ‘Black’ typically refers to both people like me who have/appear to have/claim indigenous sub-Saharan African ancestry and expresses ideas about experiences related to my race. Acts of citizenship are intended to publicly negotiate for community members the experience of these shared places/spaces. By excerpting, excluding, annotating, or otherwise altering them, I ponder the influence of the patterns or narratives of these shared places/spaces on community members’ lived experiences. Indeed, I have come to think of my work as comprised of acts of citizenship within my various communities.
I worked long and hard to define these ideas of place and space and to articulate the connection between my work and my notion of citizenship. It isn’t perfect (my thesis could use a good editor), but I stand by this statement.
With these thoughts in mind, I look forward to 2017…
There’s talk in the ‘real’ news about ‘fake’ news. Ha! During the campaign and acutely since the election, I felt/feel abused by The Atlantic and The New York Times1, and, by extension, The New Yorker, The LA Times, and The Washington Post. ‘Old guard’ coverage was such lurid sensationalism that, over the last year, I repeatedly asked myself, ‘What is going on? Again!? They know there’s no bad press… What in the world… Why!?’ As a result, I’ve spent the last almost two months reading instead Jezebel, Buzzfeed (a lot of Darren Sands‘ work), GQ, Vice, and my beloved Hyperallergic. While there’s a lot of play on these sites, they are quick to deliver pertinent, targeted information. Still, generally, there’s an elegance that I love missing from that writing, and aesthetics matter. I’m ready to revisit some of the ‘old guard’, but how can I do so without flying into front page rage?
I’ve come up with a compromise;2 great reporters work for each of those publications, so, rather than go through the front page, I’ve made a linked list of the ‘beat’ reporters and literary and arts publications that I trust to investigate the issues that matter to me:
The Atlantic (no link here; skip the front page.)
- Ta-Nehisi Coates National Correspondent, Culture/Politics/Social Issues
- Krishnadev Calamur Senior Editor, News Coverage
- James Hamblin, MD Senior Editor, Health
- Gillian B. White Senior Associate Editor, Business
- Kaveh Waddell Associate Editor, Technology
- Priscilla Alvarez Associate Editor, Politics/Health
- Alana Semuels Staff Writer, Business
- Juleyka Lantigua-Williams Staff Writer, Criminal Justice
- Ed Yong Staff Writer, Science
Unfortunately, I don’t trust The Atlantic’s Education coverage as much of it “is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation” that focus on Core Curriculum, STEM subjects, and push the use of Microsoft software and hardware on districts around the country rather than on engage in meaningful dialogue with communities about what should happen in public schools.
The Washington Post
I like the work of The Washington Post’s Education Reporter Valerie Strauss – both her general coverage and The Answer Sheet, a “school survival guide for parents (and everyone else).”
In fact, The Post overall has been, it seems, much more rigorous in it’s post-election coverage than other national publications.
The LA Times
Although The LA Times Election coverage was solid – and the LATimes/USC Poll was a better predictor of the outcome than most (like, 98.9%) of other polls -, they’ve got too many problems to be on my regular reading list.
Also dry and pretty even-handed, The Nation
And New Republic
I do like the spunky irreverence of the (very) mainstream New York Magazine.
I’ve also discovered Jacobin. These guys are ROUGH! They. Do. Not. Pussyfoot. Around. Their. Radical. SOCIALISM. Very encouraging.
In the complete opposite direction, is the New York Times. I’ve had it with this rag. The Opinions section is sooooo… Gah. My opinion of the NYTimes is that it is powerless because… Who knows why! And, frankly, who cares? Well, I care because, if the newspaper of record is so weak, then of course the election turned out the way it did. Aside from The Stone, The Ethicist, On Photography, the Health section, Jenna Wortham, Wesley Morris, and Wortham and Morris’ Still Processing, I can’t think of anything they’ve reported since the election that I want to read.
Right. Don’t bother.
- The Sun-Sentinel’s election coverage was ok, but the mugshot run daily on that front page is increasingly intolerable when I connect it in intention to national publications’ campaign and election headlines and above-the-fold images. ↩︎
- I haven’t yet figured out how to avoid The Sun-Sentinel’s home page mugshot. ↩︎
- Capitalized ‘The’ as if there are imposters (well, I suppose New York Times Books is a rival). ↩︎
- Lowercase ‘the’ which I find quirky and interesting. ↩︎
These Hollywood archetypes and cultural stereotypes — a lot of that was used as propaganda. It keeps us from connecting with other people, because we get stuck on the historical stuff that’s supposed to keep us separated. We’re really not that separate. I have to work on that in my day-to-day life, because even as an artist, it becomes so insular. My work keeps me connected to something bigger than myself, where I can connect with people and have a dialogue.
I am hopeful that my mother will be around to share many more years with us. But I’m now attempting to find some comfort in the idea that I can keep her close to me for as long as I live by struggling to remain decent, the pursuit that I’ve seen conjure up incredible power during the course of her life. The world takes from us relentlessly. It takes our friends and first loves. It takes our parents. It takes our faith. It takes our dignity. It takes our passion. It takes our health. It takes our honesty, and it takes our credulity. To lose so much and still hold onto yourself is perhaps the most complicated task human beings are asked to perform, which is why seeing it done with aplomb is as thrilling as looking at dinosaur bones or seeing a herd of elephants. It’s an honor to exist on Earth with these things.
Depending on what stage of the project I am in, the process differs. Early on, I am sketching, doing drawings, working out characters, relationships, and connections between the paintings. That goes on for a few months in the beginning. [For this work,] I had just come off of a more research-based online project (John Brown Song! for Dia Foundation) and the paintings needed to absorb that material in a somewhat removed and tangential way. I don’t think of the two projects as explicitly related, but similar questions inform the works.
In terms of what happens in the studio, over time my activity becomes more regimented, more precise. An entire day could be mixing a background color and doing tests of that color, or a day could be devoted to what [the characters] are wearing on their feet, and cross-checking feet. I work on the paintings as a group so they are all brought along at the same time, and they are all finished at about the same time.
What’s the best way to watch it or interact with it? I can tell you, I did not watch it linearly. I watched the first two, then I went to all thumbnails and I clicked around there, then I went back to the original one and clicked through, then I went to the last page. So I was all over the place. You obviously put in a lot of time thinking about how you placed that, and then I just disrupted it.
I suspected that people would go into it in wildly different ways, though I suppose I do have my preferences for viewing it. I think it is also okay to mess with my usual ability to control things—as I would with paintings—because a premise of the series is that they’re asking artists to work in an unfamiliar medium. I mean, I didn’t even know how big a pixel was. I didn’t know what the refresh button was at the top. I worked with a technician who did the programming that made it all work. I designed what you are looking at on each page, all of the details, and how you move through the site. I chose the videos and the archival material and did some minor editing. The videos were made by the participants so you are seeing each person’s individual choices once you start playing the songs. Like YouTube, I wanted a button to get out, a button to pause, simple ways to give you maximum control. I wanted to give you choices because if you’re trapped with someone singing for that long and you’re not happy with it, you won’t want to stay. I went with what I like about looking at things on the Internet, and I have to be able to stop things. I don’t like being trapped, and I don’t like things that have a long load time.
One of the questions, given its simplicity: is the user experience going to be enough to hold someone who’s younger? My aesthetic is really pared down. If you look at my paintings, that carries over. Having it on a white background was a big decision. The guy I was working with was suggesting I could have things moving or changing or blinking and I came out of that conversation asking, “But could I have it on a white background?”